Archive for the ‘Latin America’ Category

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.


What the fuzz is all about: May Day Statement

July 2, 2007

Recently, I wrote a series on the meaning and relevance of the Venezuelan reform proces instigated under president Chavez, events known as the Bolivarian Revolution. This series was a reaction to the May Day Statement published by Socialist Worker – New Zealand. My series has also been posted on their blog. On the request of Socialist Worker – New Zealand, and for the sake of discussion and exchange of opinion, I publish the May Day Statement here as well.

Peter Storm

Venezuela’s deepening revolution & international socialist coordination

Central committee   of Socialist Worker – New Zealand

1May 2007

This May Day statement by the central committee of Socialist Worker-New Zealand takes up an invitation from Alex Callinicos, a leader of the British Socialist Workers Party, to respond to his proposal (27 September 2006) that the International Socialist Tendency (IST) adopt a new “Coordination” structure.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand has been an affiliate of the IST since 1995. We believe that the question of an IST Coordination demands that the whole IST first comes to a consensus on the global political context and critical global tasks of the IST, since questions of organisation and politics cannot be separated.


Socialist Worker-New Zealand believes that key elements of the global political context include:

  • Huge turmoil and rivalries within global imperialism, which is driving the US state’s global war to maintain its position relative to rival powers, chiefly China, the European Union and Russia.

  • The weakening of the US state’s ability to assert its will by military force as a result of the heroic resistance of Iraqi people to the imperialist occupation of their country.

  • Massive grassroots opposition around the world to the Iraq war, which in some countries has seen large anti-war movements emerge. If Iran is attacked, there will likely be an explosion of the anti-war movement onto the streets.

  • Heightened grassroots concern about planetary environmental chaos, due to the climate change issue “bursting through” into the mainstream.

  • Neo-liberalism facing growing political opposition, which is currently the most advanced across Latin America.

  • Signs of rising worker unrest and unionisation across some countries.

  • The deepening revolutionary process in Venezuela, marked by the “left turn” of Hugo Chavez in parallel with his re-election as president on 3 December 2006.


Socialist Worker-New Zealand regards the unfolding revolution in Venezuela as of epochal significance.

With the US military bogged down in Iraq, there is more space for Venezuela’s socialist Chavistas to seriously challenge capitalism right on Washington’s doorstep.

This challenge has profound implications for the world’s socialists. The deepening revolution in Venezuela is an historic opportunity for socialists everywhere to spotlight a real-life alternative to capitalism’s inequality, eco-chaos and war.

Is the unfolding Venezuelan revolution the most important leap forward for the workers’ cause since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution? The answer from delegates at Socialist Worker-New Zealand’s recent national conference was a unanimous “yes”.

The masses in Venezuela are behind a genuine revolutionary project in a way that has not occurred in the last 90 years. While nothing is certain, this could well create the mass impetus for a huge revival in the international revolutionary socialist movement.

It is the world historic significance of events in Venezuela, and the implications for IST coordination and direction, that is the focus of this Socialist Worker-New Zealand statement.


Socialist Worker-New Zealand offers this summary analysis of the political situation in Venezuela:

  • There is, at present, a dual power scenario in Venezuela where opposing class forces are “balanced out”. While this state of affairs has lasted for quite a while, it is inherently unstable and cannot last forever. Either one class coalition or the other will win the war over whether Venezuela will move beyond capitalism to socialism. In this war the impact of global events will play a pivotal role, since the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union in the 1920s showed that “socialism in one country” cannot forever withstand the pressures of world capitalism.

  • A huge proportion of Venezuela’s population are actively involved in the revolutionary process. The role of the grassroots masses was decisive in beating back the right-wing military coup of 2002 and restoring the elected Chavista government. In the presidential election of December 2006 Hugo Chavez, who campaigned on an openly socialist platform, received 63% of the vote (7.3 million people). Over the week before polling day, 2.5 million people in Caracas, half the capital’s entire population, took to the streets to support Chavez against counter-revolutionary provocations.

  • The masses and the leaders of the Bolivarian Revolution are having to confront fundamental issues about what socialism is and how it can be won. In particular, the question of state power is being debated on a mass scale: Can the existing capitalist state be bent to a new popular will? Or must new organs of grassroots power be created to confront the pro-capitalist bureaucracy and the economic power of the capitalist class? Increasingly the answer is being seen in the practical construction of alternative structures of popular power.


Chavez & Co, who are the established leaders of the revolution, have learnt a lot since the former army officer was first elected president in 1998. Crucially they have learnt from the actions of the masses of people, who in turn have been inspired by Chavista leaders who are calling for “socialism in the 21st century”.

Both the leadership and the masses have learnt by having to counter the military coups, economic sabotage and propaganda warfare of pro-capitalist forces. When you are engaged in open battle, you either learn very quickly or you lose.

Early in 2005 Chavez spoke of how he had once believed in a “third way”, which he described as trying to “put a mask” on the capitalist beast, but this had been “smashed by reality” and he was now a socialist. Over the last six months Chavez has moved further towards revolutionary conclusions, calling himself a Trotskyist and proclaiming “permanent revolution”. He has made repeated calls for the “dismantling of the bourgeois state” in order to build socialism in Venezuela.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand recognises the very positive initiatives coming from Chavez & Co to push beyond dual power towards socialism. Chavez calls this process a “revolution within the revolution”. These initiatives include:

The expansion of communal councils (currently numbering 19,000) across all of Venezuela is encouraging mass participatory democracy and drawing more grassroots people into the revolutionary process.

The communal councils are a positive move to empower the urban poor — the casualised workers and petty traders in the cities who make up over half of Venezuela’s total population. While these councils are not the same as the workers’ soviets of 1917 Russia, they are vital in a land where the majority of people live in cities but do not have permanent jobs, let alone belong to unions.

The communal councils possibly have more in common with the poor peasants’ committees which the Bolsheviks tried (but failed) to establish as an emancipatory vehicle for Russia’s masses of rural workers and poor peasants. The big difference is that the Bolsheviks’ poor peasants committees’ were set up in the countryside, where their dispersal over huge areas made them unequal to the pressures of class enemies, while the Chavistas’ communal councils have arisen in the cities, where a mass concentration of the urban poor and their proximity to organised workers gives them every chance of displacing capitalism’s organs of political power.


The popular social missions, directly funded by nationalised oil revenues, have been improving the living conditions of Venezuela’s poor.

And the education, health, social welfare and co-operative missions, all relying on armies of volunteers, have begun to establish new lines of power. Chavez put it this way in June 2006:

“The social missions became the instruments of constructing socialism. But they are not socialism itself. They are weapons in the construction of socialism, aimed to include everybody, to establish and to practice equality.”

CHALLENGING THE MARKETVenezuela remains a capitalist economy, and capital is still flowing into the country seeking profits. But the Chavez government has introduced measures that are challenging the rule of capital. These include:

  • Pushing forward with the nationalisation of oil processing, as well as the planned nationalisation of telecom and power companies.
  • Government redistribution of wealth from state-owned oil to the poor of Venezuela.
    Major increases in the minimum wage.
  • Tightening up tax regulations so the rich cannot evade taxes.
  • Imposition of maximum prices for basic foodstuffs.
  • Moves to repeal the independence of Venezuela’s neo-liberal Central Bank.

UNITED SOCIALIST PARTY OF VENEZUELATo move beyond dual power towards socialism demands a mass socialist party that educates, unites and organises grassroots people around the struggle for liberation from below.

Chavez sparked the formation of a United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which he compares to Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.

The process of forming this “combat party” is already sharpening the differences between revolutionaries and reformists, which had been submerged by the previous ill-defined grouping of parties “supporting” Chavez. Those parties have all been given the option of either dissolving into the new mass socialist party or remaining outside the Chavista government.

It would be utopian to think that the PSUV could be an instantly homogenous party of revolutionaries. It will, however, be a mass socialist party with organic connections to grassroots people who support the unfolding revolution. The process of building the PSUV will challenge the reformist wing of the Bolivarian movement and precipitate a “battle of ideas” in which the masses will participate.

While the initiative for the PSUV came from Chavez, it will be built “from below”. Socialist militants, who played a key role in mobilising the Chavista vote during the 2006 presidential election, have become the “promoters” of the new mass socialist party. They are going out to the people to register members, who will be organised into “socialist battalions” of 200 people each. The aim is to organise 20,000 of these “battalions” across Venezuela, from which delegates will be elected to attend the PSUV’s founding conference in August 2007.

The conference will run for three or more months, with regular breaks so that delegates can return to their own “battalion” to discuss proposals and come back with a refreshed mandate from below.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand believes the PSUV is vital to educate, unite and organise the grassroots masses in Venezuela so they can push forward the socialist revolution.

Just as Socialist Worker-New Zealand believes all revolutionaries inside Venezuela need to join this mass socialist party, so too we believe that revolutionary groups in other countries need to establish comradely relations with the PSUV.

In combination, the communal councils, social missions, challenges to the market, formation of the PSUV and other emancipatory initiatives by Chavez & Co form a transitional mechanism by which the grassroots people of Venezuela can move towards the socialist defeat of counter-revolutionary forces. Trotsky’s transitional programme lives on inside Venezuela as the concept of liberation from below gains concrete mass form.


The future of Venezuela’s unfolding revolution is closely linked to the growth and mobilisation of unionised workers, who at present are only a tiny number compared to city-based casualised workers and petty traders, easily the biggest population groups in the country.

The small scale of Venezuela’s unionised workers is a weakness in the revolution that cannot be easily overcome. This weakness is compounded by a debilitating political split in the major union centre, the National Union of Workers (UNT). These social and political factors are hindering organised workers from speeding up the revolutionary process.

This weakness is recognised by the Chavista government. Chavez has often spoken of the need for the UNT and the organised workers to take a leading role in the revolution. Workers have been encouraged to take control of factories and create workers’ councils. Some small but positive advances in this direction have been taken.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand believes that the PSUV will be crucial to pulling unionised workers into the forefront of the revolution. That was certainly the role Lenin’s Bolsheviks played among the small sector of unionised workers in pre-revolutionary Russia.


While Chavez & Co started from a radical reformist viewpoint, the unfolding class struggle has pushed them towards a socialist perspective which is now assuming ever-sharper mass revolutionary features.

Obviously nobody can say for sure whether the Venezuelan revolution will win out. But right ow Chavez & Co are moving in a consistently socialist direction as they seek to overcome capitalism. In the process, they are confronting many problems unique to Venezuela and thus coming up with solutions not seen before in socialist history, such as the major role of communal councils in a land where far more city dwellers work in the “informal” economy than in corporate or state entities.

Venezuela’s unfolding revolution is drawing massive support from grassroots people across Latin America, which is fueling a continental revolt against neo-liberal economics and US imperial domination. In Ecuador and Bolivia, presidents have recently been elected on the back of explicitly socialist challenges to corporate rule.

These are exciting times. Socialism is being seriously talked about and acted upon by millions of people inspired by Chavez and the “revolution within the revolution” in Venezuela.

Socialists worldwide should be enthusiastic about the Bolivarian Revolution. Socialists worldwide need to engage with the revolution’s leaders, who will be in the PSUV, so there can be a reciprocity of ideas that promotes the global struggle for grassroots self-emancipation. Thus Socialist Worker-New Zealand is looking to forge practical links with our PSUV comrades in a land where socialism is well on the way to becoming a determining force.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand and a broad range of other leftists have formed the Venezuela Aotearoa Solidarity Team (VAST). We want to bring awareness of Venezuela’s revolution to the working class in this country. We want to build a solidarity coalition able to effectively oppose any intervention in Venezuela by the US state and its foreign allies.

In our socialist work in broad coalitions, such as the anti-war, anti-Islamophobic and climate change movements, we are pointing to Venezuela as a positive alternative to imperialism, oppression and eco-meltdown.


It is within the context of the deepening revolution in Venezuela that Socialist Worker-New Zealand responds to Alex Callinicos’s proposal to create an IST “Coordination”. Alex defines such a Coordination as consisting of “selected organisations” whose leaderships would consult and meet between annual IST gatherings “to deal with initiatives, problems, etc”.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand has two substantive concerns with this Coordination proposal. First, it is not intimately linked to the global political situation, and in particular to how the IST needs to engage with the mass revolutionary process in Venezuela. Instead, the proposal is couched in terms of the IST’s own internal processes.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand believes the unfolding Venezuelan revolution, if it continues to move in the direction it’s currently going, will reshape the socialist and labour movements in every country on every continent, just as the unfolding Bolshevik revolution did from 1917-24. Therefore, rather than looking inwards, the IST needs to be focused outwards towards the most advanced revolutionary upsurge in 90 years and the global socialist regroupments it will inevitably set into motion.

At present, there seem to be real differences between IST affiliates over the nature of what is happening in Venezuela. At one end of the IST spectrum, Socialist Worker-New Zealand see Chavez & Co as being at the centre of the most important “revolution in the revolution” since the Bolsheviks proclaimed “All power to the Soviets” in 1917 Russia. At the other end of the IST spectrum, the Venezuelan revolution was a “non-topic” in the official discussion bulletins of the British Socialist Workers Party in the lead-up to their national conference in January 2007.

So how do we form an IST Coordination when the IST appears to lack real political coordination over the key strategic issue of Venezuela’s revolution? If we were to do it just on the basis of IST tactical organisation, any such IST Coordination would be a sham from the outset.

The deepening Venezuelan revolution has sparked intense discussions among the world’s different Marxist organisations about what makes a revolution, how to move towards socialism, what is the dialectic between the leaders and the masses, how to establish workers’ control and other strategic questions.

We all have a lot to learn from the world historic events in Venezuela. We cannot assume that any one Marxist group has readymade answers to everything. Any IST Coordination, therefore, must be based on facilitating this global debate among all Marxist groups, most of them outside the IST, in tandem with fusing the IST into a strategic engagement with the PSUV’s leaders.

It’s a global debate about the Venezuelan revolution that the IST needs to start coordinating, and that requires democratic input from all IST affiliates around the world.

That brings us to our second substantive concern. The IST Coordination proposal calls for unspecified powers to be granted to “selected” organisations. Any such “selection” would leave non-selected IST groups on the margins of IST decision-making, given the tyranny of distance over a global coalition like the IST. It would fix the bureaucratic curse of the initiating “centre” and the non-initiating “periphery” onto the IST.

Why can’t every IST affiliate have one representative on the IST Coordination? With modern communications technology, face-to-face meetings in London can be replaced by extremely cheap “virtual” meetings that link all continents. The material basis already exists for an all-in IST Coordination that interacts on a global scale as frequently as needed. The real question is whether the IST has the political consensus and the political will to bring it about.


In the opinion of Socialist Worker-New Zealand, it is urgent and critical for the IST to relate to the revolutionary process in Venezuela and the opportunities it is creating for socialists worldwide.

To move in this direction, Socialist Worker-New Zealand makes three concrete proposals:

(1) As many Spanish-speaking IST comrades as possible to attend the three-month founding conference of the PSUV starting in August 2007.

(2) In consultation with PSUV leaders and Marxists from other countries attending the PSUV conference, the Spanish-speaking IST attendees to initiate a global debate about the nature, strategies and prospects of the Venezuelan revolution.

(3) To help coordinate this global debate about the Venezuelan revolution, an IST Coordination be created consisting of one delegate from every IST group and relying on modern technology to hold all-in “virtual” meetings as required.


The failure of US forces in Iraq has opened up more space for the world’s socialists to operate. In Venezuela, for the first time since Lenin’s Bolsheviks, we are seeing a mass movement well on the way towards establishing socialism within the borders of a whole country. The front line of the epochal war between capitalism and socialism is now in Venezuela.

Even where there has been resistance to the neo-liberal offensive over the last two decades, the international workers’ movement has been floundering on the widespread assumption that “there is no alternative”. The Venezuelan revolution is putting socialism back on the agenda in a practical and living way — the way most people will come to socialism. The IST must be an organic part of this process.

Any IST Coordination needs to be focused on relating to forces outside the IST. That’s because the forward movement of the Venezuelan revolution and the wider Latin American uprisings look likely to provide the essential material foundations for a positive regroupment of the socialist and radical left on every continent, and the parallel emergence of a mass socialist international.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand believes the political and organisational decisions made within the IST must reflect this historic opportunity to move towards a mass socialist international. This is the first time since the early days of the Comintern that such a possibility has existed.

This requires the IST to directly engage with PSUV leaders in the building of a mass socialist international. The IST can play a positive role in this process if we make that turn now.

Socialist Worker-New Zealand invites feedback from IST affiliates and other socialist organisations. Please send your comments to:

Central committee, Socialist Worker-New Zealand, PO Box 13-685,Auckland, New Zealand.

+64 9 634 3984


Central committee of Socialist Worker-New Zealand


  • Don Archer
  • Grant Brookes
  • Joe Carolan
  • Gordon Farris
  • Vaughan Gunson
  • Bernie Hornfeck
  • Peter Hughes
  • Daphne Lawless
  • Grant Morgan
  • Len Parker
  • Tony Snelling-Berg

Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades (part 6)

June 1, 2007

The May Day Statement, published by Socialist Worker-New Zealand, considers the Venezuelan process of change “the most advanced revolutionary upsurge in 90 years” and talks of “the global socialist regroupments  it will inevitably set in motion.” In part 5 of  “Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades”, I tried to show that there have been revolutionary upsurges at least as advanced as the one beginning to unfold in Venezuela. Now, I want to show that there have been revolutionary events with consequences for international revolutionary politics at least as big as those of the Venezuelan events.

Three years of revolutionary change immediately spring to mind. The first is 1956. In that year, the Stalinist bloc openly went into crisis. That crisis had been brewing sice the death of the tyrant after which the system was named, in 1953. In june of that year, East german workers revolted against the dictatorship; Russian tanks saved the regime. But the Russsian leadership began to realize that you cannot run a modern economy and en empire purely on repression. Fear is not the most efficient motivating principle if you need to raise productivity, especially the productivity of skilled wokers, technicians, scientists. And raising productivity is a necessity, for a state capitalist economy as the Stalinist one as much as for a more market-oriented economy. International competition, mainly through the arms race, was the priority for both sides in the Cold War. 

So, reforms became neccessary. That was the background for Khrusthovs (not so )Secret Speech on the crimes of Stalin. Khrushov and other leaders wanted to open up the system a bit, to make it somewhat more flexible. For party leaders was a technique to cosolidate and modernise their power. But many intellectuals saw the reform process as an opening for real freedom. Agitation for democratic reforms and a further lessening of repression grew. This linked uo with the discontent of workers who had already been pushed beyond limits of endurence.

In Poland, workers revolted in Poznan in 1956; later that year, a reform movement  under Gomulka, a party leader who had been purged,  took over the governbment. But the new leadership used the hopes among workers and intellectuals – and channeled the movement in order to tame it. Unfortunately, this move succeeded, deeper revolt  was contaned, and the Stalinist state stabilised itself in a somewhat liberalised version. In Hungary, the pressure for democracy combined with workers’ revolt in a much more radical fashion. Open revolution was the result – one of the classic proletarian revolutions of the twentieth century.

The whole chain of events had enormous consequences for the international left.From 1956 onwards, Stalinism was no longer the unchallenged power in the workers’movement that it was before. People began to re-discover elements of the Marxist tradition that had been  beriedf under Stalinist distortion. A few found their way to revolutionary Marxism in its Trotskyist form. Others developed what tended to be called Marxist humanism, an open-ended collection of ideas. A UK magazine like New Left Review started from this kind of inspiration.

But, whatever the direction became that a whole number of radicals took – there now was a growing space to the Left of the Stalinist parties. When new upsurges of revolutionary struggles appeared, there were small, non-Stalinist left groupings. Many of them owed their ideas, their strength or even their existence to that eventful year, 1956. Paul Blackledge has a long and fascinating article on the events of 1956 and their consequences of the Left: “The New Left’s renewal of Marxism” , International Journal, no. 112, Autums 2006. The same issue of that review also has an overviuw of the Hungarian Revolution”: Mike Hayne’s “Hungary: workers’councils against Russian tanks”.

The next big wave of revolutionary struggle can be symbolized by the year 1968. That was the year of the big events in France, when student revolts was followed by a giant general strike and factory occupations on a big scale. It looked like revolution. And, even though the struggle subsided, its consequences for the Left were serious. The whole idea theat the working class in Western countries would never revolt, was thoroughly integrated within capitalist society, was much to comfortable to start anything truly rebellious – that idea took a beating. Revolutionary marxism – with its insistence on the centrality of the working class – suddenly sounded less exotic that it had done for decades.

In the same year, the crisis of Stalinism went into a new phase. In Chechoslovakia, the  Communist leadership opened up a series of reforms. A process similar to that in 1956 in Poland and Hungary unfolded. Intellectuals and students built pressure for democratization. Workers began to fight for their class demands, pressure for the  formaton of enterprise councils grew. The party leadership – led by Alexander Duncek – tried to ride the wave, probably hoping to do what Gomulka succeeded in doing. The Russian leaders, fearing the spread of the virus of radical change and the undermining of the bloc they led, lost patience. They sent an invasion force, and the waven of democratic struggle, with all its revolutionary potential, was strangled.

Again, the consequences were momentous. Stalinist parties in the West went into deep crisis. Many of them refused to support the Russian interventyion, and began to move in an openly social-democratic direction in what became known as ‘Eurocommunism’ . At the same time, the Trotskyist idea that revolutionary change was needed in the East as well as in the West, was again vindicated. In combination with the French May revolt, this gave revolutionary Marxist ideas a noticeable boost. The LCR, for instance, the Trotskyist organisation whose candidate Olivier Besancenot gained an appreciable result in the French presidential elections, can trace inportant roots to 1968. The International Socialists, forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, also built itself into a sizable organisation in 1968 and after.

A big factor in the growth of the revolutionary left was a third big event in 1968: the Tet Offensive, through which Vietnamese resistance forces proved without a saemblance of doubt that the US was losing the war in Vietnam. Strong antiwar movements already existed in both the UK and the US; the events of 1968 gave them a boost, and revolutionaries were in the middle of these movements and tried to strengthen anti-imperialist ideas within and through that movement. Both the Socialist Wokers Party (US), then still Trotskyist, and the International Socialists (UK), now the Socialist Workers Party, bult both that movement and, within and through that movement, their own organisation. France, Chechoslovakia and Vietnam together meant: anticapitalism, anti-Stalinism and anti-imperialism. Around those ideas, a serious revolutionary left began to be founded. By the way, the best book I know on the events of 1968 and after still is  “The Fire Last Time” by Chris Harman.

Then there was the year 1989. This was the year of the ‘End of Communism’ – of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the overthrow of the one party dictatorships in most Eastern European coutries (Albania followed in 1990-1991, in Russia the process was somewhat more extended, between 1989 and 1991).

The events were enormously inspiring and, at the same time, enormously problematic in their consequences for the left. Inspiring: democratic workers’ movements first challenged, then overthrew a whole series of authoritarian police states that, only months earlier, looked quite powerful. Problematic: what does it mean for socialists, when states widely considered as socialist, or on the way to socialism, or at the very least post-capitalist  – suddenly are overhtrown by the workers in whose name their rulers supposedly ruled?

The events happened fast. Strikes in Poland in 1988 pushed the leaders into negotiations; in the end, they agreed to elections, which they decisively and overwhelmingly lost. Mass demonstrations and mass refugee movements in East Germany first forced out the hated Honecker, then forced the new leadership to open the Berlin Wall. Then, workers simply started to dismantle the thing. In Romania, demonstrations turned into insurrection when Ceasescu’s soldiers and Securitate shot at demonstrators. Soldiers joined the people in revolt, and we had a revolution in Romania on our TV screens just before Christmas. A fes weeks before that, a student demonstration in Checkoslovakia was attackes by riot police; daily mass demonstrations, and a two-hour general strike, disposed of another Stalinist regime within two weeks.

All these regimes supposedly were socialist, goiverning in the interest of the workers. And in one country after another, workers were at the centre of the revolt against these regimes. This was the irony, both inspiring and cruel, of those events. It was inspiring for socialists who had been explaining for years that these regimes had nothing to do with socialism, except the symbols and the rhetoric; in reality, these regimes represented a form of capitsalism whre the state operated as capitalist, and a bureaucracy led that state. The character of those societies was bureaucratic state capitalist.

Socialists who held this analysis  were not at all discouraged by the overthrow of Stalinist  states. However, after a few months in which the situation could develop in all kinds of ways, all these states moved towards a much more openly market-based captalism. Privatisation and liberalisation (and unemployment and rising prices) became the order of the day. As such, this was a rather uninspiring outcome of inspiring events.

The fact that people turned away from Stalinism, not towards revolutionary socialism but to the free market and liberal democracy was not surprising. When you have bene oppressed and exploited by bosses who called themselves socialist or communist, it is not strange that you reject socialism and communism and the Marxism supposedly at the root of all this. “The problem is that genuine commuinism, planning and the red flag are all identified with an oppressive regime” (Tony Cliff, “Earthquake in the East” , Socialist Review, December 1989). So people who in other circumstances would have been attracted to socialist ideas, now turn to the idea that the market can solve most problems.

Left wing politics internationally suffered the consequences, because the largest part of the left held on to the idea that, yes, the Stalinist one party states were either soclialist, in between capitalism and socialism, workers’states albeit with degenerations or deformations or whatnot. Now these states had collapsed. “From the West it looks as if  socialism has no future as the regimes are falling to pieces. This is a massive boost to the right” (again, Cliff, writing while the events were still unfolding). The currents, for instans the International Socialist Tendency, who held on to the idea that the regimes had beet state capitalist all along were very much on the margins, and could not insulate themselves totally from the general demoralisation much of the radical left suffered. Still, the theory othat analysed those one party states as a form of capitalism made it possible for socialist not to totally drown permanently in depression, to continue, preparing ourselves for new moves forward.

That brings us to the present day. We have seen three chains of events with tremendous repercussions, good and bad, for the international Left. Can it truly be said that the ramifications for the Left of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela are already on the same order of magnitude?

Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades (part 5)

May 30, 2007

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., 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,  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.

Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades (part 4)

May 30, 2007

In part 3 of this series, I said that the IS Tendency “has not been among Chavez’ most fanatical cheerleaders”. And, as far as I am concerned, an attidude of solidarity, but without hyping the Bolivarian process as the Biggest Event Seen in Many Many Years, is the right attitude. However, hyping the Venezuelan process is exactly what one part of the IS Tendency is doing. That, at least is, how I read their May Day Statement.

For instance, they say the following: : “Socialist Worker – New Zealand regards the unfolding revolution in Venezuela as of epochal significance.” And they ask the question: “Is the unfolding Venezuelan revolution the most important leap forward for the workers’ cause since  the 1917 Bolsjevik Revolution in 1917? The answer from  delegates at Socialist Worker -New Zealand’s recent national conference was a unanimous ‘yes’.”  They continue: “The masses in Venezuela are behind a genuine revolutionary project in a way that has not occurred in the last 90 years.” And, in the same vein: “Socialist Worker-New Zealand believes the unfolding Venezuelan revolution, if it continues to move in the direction it’s currently going, will reshape the socialist and labour movements in very country on every continent, just as the unfolding Bolshevik revolution did in 1917-1924.” We also read: “Chavez & Co are at the centre of the most important ‘revolution within the revolution’ since the Bolsheviks pronounced “All power to the Soviets” in 1917 Russia.”

I think this is a serious misjudgement, and a dangerous one as well. It is built on a misguided analysis on at least three fronts. The current state of world affairs does not make Venezuela the center of any socialist universe. History between 1924 and the 21st century has seen revolutions unfolding that were at least as influential, important and impressive as the process going on in Venezuela, which is, in essence, still a reform process with inspiring elements of revolution – no more than that. The analysis of the Bolivarian process itself, then, also is faulty. As a whole, I consider the attidudes expressed in this May Day Declaration as in some respects even more exaggerated than that of In Defence of Marxism and The Unrepentant Marxist that I wrote about in part two of this series.

Let’s start with the wordl situation today. I think the most central and explosive development is the general crisis of US hegemony. The appearance of elected left wing governments, such as in Venezuela, is part of that – but not the central part. The failing ‘War on Terror’ is the main battle. The fact that the US cannot stabilise its occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, that resistance forces are slowly but steadily defeating the US and its allies, the fact that the Bush presidency, in a combination of recklessness, arrogance and desperation, is moving closer to war with Iran, which will bring about an ever bigger quagmire for the US – these facts combined show what is going on: the US effort to grab the main oil fields in the world – i.e. world power – is not at all going well.

US succes or US failure in the Middle East and West Asia? The fate of the world for years to come depends on the answer to that question. Suppose that the US defeat becomes a fact. US forces leave Iraq, US and other NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the US battlefleet leaves the Persian Gulf and stops threatening Iran.

That would mean an even bigger US defeat that the result of the Vietnam War. In the Middle East, there is much more at stake than Cold War prestige and the “bad example” of allowing a small country its independence. In the Middle East, the fight is about oil, an essential part of financial and strategic power in world capitalism. Losing the Middle Eastern and central Asian oilfields does nog mean losing the world. But it would be a giant step in that direction.

A US defeat would resonate world wide. If the Biggest Boss on Earth can be defeated – not by another big boss, but by lightly armed guerrilla foreces in poverty- stricken countries – then every boss, anywhere in the world, has a lot more to fear. And every worker, poor peasant, slum-dweller will have something less to fear. If Bush can be defeated, any boss can be defeated.

In Socialist Worker (UK),  10 June 2006, Jonathan Neale says: “In most people’s minds, the power of the market and the power of the US have become colsely related. If the empire cracks, the domination of the market inside or minds will crack too. Moreover, these effects will be amplified because most people believe it can’t happen. If the Iraqis can win, people will say, then we can take on our government – or our supervisor, of our head teacher. Every manager will lose some confidence.” Revolt will rumble and roll, in ways not seen since the sixties or even the twenties of the 20th century. And Venezuelan events will be a proud and inspiring part of that world wide revolt.

On the other hand – if the US manages to escape defeat, if it manages to drown the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq in blood, if it manages to succesfully defeat Iran and impose a semblance of neoliberal ‘order’ in the region – and if it gets its hand on the oil – the world will enter a truly frightening episode. Everywhere, the powers-that-be, will sleep much easier. Everywhere, left wing movements and other forms of popular resistance will feel the heat. Very likely such a U.S. victory – or at least a bloody postponement of defeat for quite a numer of years – is not. But possible it certainly is.

Such a turn of events would mean that the Chavez government, the Bolivarian process, and the mass movement in Venezuela, will lose the “space for Venezuela’s socialist Chavistas to seriously challenge capitalism on Washington’s doorstep” that Socialist Worker-New Zealand talks about. Venezuela, its goverment, reforms and mass movement will then be under acute threat of full-scale military intervention from Washington.

What, then, should be the order of priorities for socialists and socialist organisations? First: bring US defeat closer, in order to help open wider the floodgates of revolt. That means: build more pressure against both occupations, against the impending attack on Iran, but also against any kind of intimidation going on against, for instance, Venezuela.

Second: strengten left-wing influence, socialist organisation, within that struggle. For anti-imperialism to be consistent, it should attack the roots: not just the American empire, but its capitalist roots. And we do not want to replace one empire by another. Stronger anticapitalist, socialist, forces are needed within the broader waves of struggle and resistance.

Here, the Venezuelan events certainly are relevant. They provide inspiration. And the fact that an elected left-wing government talks of building socialism and that this talk is somehow connected to forms of mass mobilisation helps socialists everywhere.

But there are other mass struggles to inspire us, other forms of resistance, who are as relevant and exiting for socialists as the Bolivarian revolution. Venezuela should not be promoted out of proportion, to the exclusion of these other things happening. Let me give just one example of one such inspiring chain of events. 

Egypt is undergoing a giant strike wave, with sit-in strikes an factory occupations. Socialists are getting a hearing and a certtain amount of influence within that struggle. Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy analyse events in “Strikes in Egypt Spread from Center  of Gravity” (Middle East Report, 9 mei 2007); The events can be followed on a daily basis on 3arabway, Hossan al-Hamalawy’s weblog.

The importance should be clear: workers’ revolt is threatening an important American ally in the Middle East; and the left wing dynamic provided by the combination of strike action and socialist organisation combines, shows that there are other forms of resistance in that region than the usual Islamist ones, with all their limitations. It is one example of imperialism beginning to be connected to anticapitalism.

If the Mubarak regime would be overhrown by mass revolt, with mass strikes as the backbone of that revolt and socialist organisation providing leadership, the whole picture of the Middle East would be drastically different, and drastically more hopeful. Venezuela is not the only country where things are happening to  get enthousiastic about. Not at all. Battles are raging in many corners of the world, hope springs in all kinds of different places, and our choices should reflect that.

Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades (part 3)

May 26, 2007

Up to recently, the Marxist current of which I am a part, the International Socialist (IS) Tendency, has not been among Chavez’ most  fanatical cheerleaders. A good impression of the IS attitude can be found in two articles. Mike Gonzales’ article “Venezuela: many steps to come”, is a general overview of the events from an IS point of view. “Latin America: the return of Popular Power” brings the analysis up to date, to 2007. Both are published in International Socialism Journal, quarterly of the Socialist Workers Party (UK), important component of  the IS Tendency.

The way I see events in Venezuela, a point of view connected to these kinds of analyses, differs in several respects from the views expressed on The Unrepentant Marxist and In Defence of Marxism(see part 2 of this series). First, the process is, up to now, mainly a process of reforms – important ones, progressive ones, but not in themselves revolutionary. The developments generate enthousiasm among enormous numbers of people, and many of these people are organising themselves to push the process forward. That holds revolutionary potential, but it does not make the ‘Bolivarian revolution’ a revolution – yet.

Second, the role of Chavez is much more double-edged than many of his supporters suggest. He is not just the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, whatever that means exactly. He is, above all, president of the state of Venezuela –  in essence, still a capitalist republic playing the game of national and international politics according the rules of capitalism. It seems clear to me that Chavez would like to break with capitalist logic; I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. At the same time, most of the time he does not actually do so. 

This is not at all surprising. Revolutions that do depend on what a president does or does not do will not come very far. The essential force to move the Venezuelan reforms beyond the limits that the capitalist economy and the bourgeois state impose, is the force from below: people pushing for radical change, not presidents enacting reforms. That the people can push the president in an more radical direction is true. That the president talks about Trotsky approvingly is nice, even touching. But that does not change the fact that the role of mass movements is essential. They, not the president as such, will or will not succeed in turning the Bolivarian revolution into a  successful revolution.

Third, the events in Venezuela are an important part of the big challenge confronting neoliberalism in Latin America. We have seen the formation of left wing governments in Bolivia and Ecuador. There has been a rise of radical movements – of landless people in Brazil, of coca farmers and miners in Bolivia, of teachers in Mexico, of indigenous communities in Ecuador, Mexico, Bolivia… Together, they express a radicalization that moves in a revolutionary direction. 

But the Bolivarian revolution is not THE central event in world affairs. The fate of the American empire is being decided most of all in the Middle East, where US imperialism is fighting for its hold on the most important strategic resource: oil. That fight is much more central, much more decisive for the balance of forces on a world scale.

Moreover, what happens in Latin America in general, and Venezuela in particular, is closely connected with events in the Middle East. For instance, the US hostility towards Chavez was connected to Chavez’ criticism of the Iraq war even before it started. And the success of the Iraqi resistance in defying and undermining the Iraq occupation means that the US military has trouble finding troops for invading Venezuela, overthrowing Chavez, overturning the reforms and installing a right wing regime.

Without the failure of the Iraq  war and occupation, I strongly doubt that the US would have tolerated the Bolivarian challenge for so long. Without that failure, the US would not have limeted itself to background support for coup efforts, financial support for the opposition and military support for neighbour Colombia. If the ‘Venezuelan revolution’ will have the time to truly grow into a full-blown revolution, the revolutionaries can thank the Iraqi resistance fighters for  providing them with that time.

This applies in a broader sense. “The faultline in the Middle East is having its effects everywhere else in the world, by sapping the strengthj and weakening the morale of  US Imperialism. Nowhere is this truer than in Latin America”, writes Chris Harman in “The faultlines grow deeper”, International Socialism Journal nr. 11o, april 2006.

The crisis of American imperialism, the impending  US defeat in the Middle East and the revolutionary beginnings in Latin America – they are connected. To see it like this, to see the connections between events in the US,  Latin America and the Middle East seems to me a much better way of analysing things than promoting one series of events in one country as being “the key to the the world revolution” , and pushing other big events to the margins.

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

May 25, 2007

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.

Venezuela: don’t overdo it, comrades

May 25, 2007

Developments in Venezuela attract a huge amount of attention, both  right and left. For the right wing, the presicency of Hugo Chavez, his increasingly radical reforms and the challenge that they form for neoliberalism worldwide and for American hegemony – it all is a cause for big concern, hostility and sometimes open threats. ‘Another Cuba’ obviously cannot be tolerated, the ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ that Chavez is imposing on Venezuela obviously has to be opposed, removed, by  conspiratorial and/ or openly military means.

This attidude was only to be expected. It is a repeat performance of the strategy of intervention by whcih American imperialism defeated the left wing government of Allende in Chile between 1970 and 1973, and by which it strangled the Nicaraguan revolution between 1979 and 1990. No one should be surprised that the Empire tries to do it again or that it’s supporters call for such endeavours. Jamie Stern-Weiner has a long, very informative article on the accusations, distortions and slurs that right wing journalists and politicians pour down on Chavez and the reform process in Venezuela – and on the Nicaraguan precedent for all this: “Deterring Democracy in Venezuela”, on UK watch.

Attitudes at the left vary, but the enthousiasm for Chavez’ radical reform programme – his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ –  seems to be on the increase. In essence, this enhousiasm is just, proper and well deserved. The reforms that the Chavez presidency brough thus far, are quite impressive.The new constitution that he instigated, and which was adopted by majority vote, brought a much more democratic system, with extended possibilites for referenda and midterm recall of even the president himself. The Constitution, and the process leading up to it, has been described by Gregory Wilpert, in “Venezuela’s New Constitution”, on”.

The so-called misiones bring education to many who didn’t get it before, both to children and adults, they bring elementary health care and houdingto many poor people. High oil prices provided resources for these kind of reforms – but without the political will to actually bring benefits to the poor majority, even the biggest resources are to little avail. One only has to compare Venezuela with, say, oil states like Saudi-Arabia, Indonesia or Russia, to see that the same price kan lead to very different social results.

During the first years of the Chavez presidency, the reforms mainly were instigated by the leadership itself, through the existing state. But that has changed, in radical and sometimes surprising ways. One turning point was the US-promoted, right wing coup in April, 2002. Thousands upon thousands of poor supporters of Chavez streamed on to the streets to demand, insistently and courageously, the return of Chavez. Riot police attacked them; they used not only tear gas, but bullets as well. But the people in revolt did not back down; the repression only showed what a post-Chavez regime would be: a violent dictatorship.

The enormous popular resistance drew soldiers to its side. A revolt of the military broke the back of the coup leaders. Within two days, a giant expression of popular initiative and defiance had defeated a dangerous right wing attack. The masses saved the reforms by making, as it were, a partial revolution. The story is told in vivid detail in “The Failed Anti-Chavez- coup, Five Years On”, by George Ciccarielo Maher.

These events shifted the balance and emboldened the mass movement on which Chavez increasingly relied. A similar experience strengthened this trend: the so-called oil strike, in the winter of 2002-2003. This was, in reality, a sabotage action of the management of the state oil company, PDVA, supported by the right wing business opposition, private media bosses, against efforts of the government to bring that under real government control. Up to then, it was very corruptly run by the manegers, as if it were their private property.

The ‘strike’ – actually, almost a coup effort in slow motion – failed, or, to put it more precisely, it was defeated by oil workers themselves. They tried insistently to re-start production, to stop management’s sabotage, and in the end they succeeded. Jorge Martin wrote a partisan, buit not therefore unserious, analysis of the event while it happened: “Venezuela: Opposition ‘strike’or bosses’lockout? -An eyewitness account”, on In Defence of Marxism.  This, combined with the rise in oil prices, made it possible to pay for the reforms in health, houding and education. It also gave a push to the left within the workers’movement. A new trade union federation, UNT,  was formed, as an alternative for the discredited CTV, which was pary of the right wing opposition and very anti-Chavez.

A third opposition offensive, the effort in 2004 to have Chavez recalled by referendum, also failed. Well-organised groups of Chavez supporters campaigned tirelessly, and they beat back the opposition’s campaign. And last your, Chavez was convincingly re-elected as president. Even the opposition candidate didn’t go all the way for the traditional claims of foul play and recognised Chavez’ victory.

And the policies  continued to shift to the left. Especialy the initiative to build ‘communal councils’ showed that te Bolivarian process is beginning toe extend to the grass roots, in an increasingly organised form. All the same, the president initiates, backs and pushes these kind of initiatives. Chavez even called these councils a form in which the existing state can be pushed aside and replaced by a new kind of state. That is, whether Chavez realises it or not, a revolutionary conclusion: the need to replace the existing, bourgeois state with a state built from below is the what Lenin, for instance, analysed in “The State and Revolution”. Whether he is willing, or even able, to back up his words with consistent deeds is another matter, and one to which I will return.

In the meantime, the language in which Chavez described his policy and his goals had also shifted to the left. From the beginning of 2005, he started to talk of socialism as the goal of the Bolivarian Revolution. Socialism of a new type, socialism of the 21st century, a socialism in which the bureaucratic mistakes of the former Soviet Union should be avoided. In recent months, he even started to describe himself – albeit tongue in cheek, more or less – as a Trotskyist and even praised Leon Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” . See ‘”What is the problem? I am also a Trotskyist” Chavez is sworn is as president of Venezuela” and “Chavez recommends the study of Trotsky, praises the Transitional Programme”, both on In Defence of Marxism.

No wonder the international left, especially all kinds of Trotskyist groups, are enthousiastic. An elected president, supported by a dynamic grassroots movement, and using openly revolutionary, even Trotskyite language – it looks good, it sounds good, and in an important sense it is good. But is it as good as it is made out to be?