5th March marks one year since the death of Hugo Chávez, the great Venezuelan revolutionary, who was an inspiration to the masses in Latin America and across the world for his leading role in the Bolivarian Revolution. Alan Woods, editor of www.marxist.com and personal friend of Chávez, looks at the legacy of the late Venzuelan President.
It is often the destiny of revolutionary leaders that after death those that attacked and vilified them during their lifetime begin to praise them, while simultaneously distorting their ideas, watering them down, reducing them to impotence, just as one neuters a troublesome tomcat.
When Karl Marx died some of those who claimed to be his followers began to interpret his ideas in such a way as to empty them of any revolutionary content. People like Bernstein and Kautsky posed as the “true disciples” of Marx while pushing reformist revisionism under the guise of “new ideas”.
Oh yes, they always like to pose as defenders of “new ideas”, as opposed to the “old ideas” of revolutionary socialism. That was the case in our own times of Heinz Dietrich, who claimed to have invented an entirely new and original theory of “socialism of the 21st century.”
In the well-known story from The Arabian Nights, the wicked wizard goes around crying “new lamps for old!” Aladdin’s girlfriend foolishly hands over his battered but valuable old lamp in exchange for a new one that is completely worthless. It is the same with the so-called “new” versions of socialism, which, on closer inspection, turn out to be not new at all, but merely a poor imitation of the antiquated ideas of Proudhon and the old Utopian socialists that Marx demolished 150 years ago.
Lenin never pretended to have established a “new and original” doctrine. On the contrary, he spent all his life defending the “old ideas” of Marx and Engels against the revisionists. Yet after Lenin’s death, Stalin and his supporters revised Lenin’s ideas in order to justify the usurpation of power by a bureaucratic caste in the Soviet Union.
Stalin had Lenin’s dead body mummified and placed like a religious relic in a mausoleum. Lenin’s widow Krupskaya complained bitterly: “Vladimir Ilyich fought against icons all his life and now they have turned him into an icon.”
What will be the destiny of Hugo Chávez? Will his ideas be buried with him? Are those who are now delivering flattering speeches about Chávez really defending his ideas and putting them into practice? That is the question that every honest supporter of the Bolivarian Revolution is asking today.
The threat of counterrevolution
One thing is clear to all. Sixteen years after its commencement, the Bolivarian Revolution is in danger. The forces of counterrevolution are on the streets, rioting and causing mayhem, just as they did in 2002. Behind the hordes of enraged petty bourgeois, the “sifrinos” (upper and middle class youth) and the lumpenproletarian riffraff, the oligarchy is pulling the strings. And behind the oligarchy stands Washington. Through the direct action of armed thugs and fascist gangs on the streets, the bourgeoisie is attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government. That is one prong of the capitalist offensive.
The other is the attempt to paralyse the economic life of the country with sabotage. They are undermining the economy by a strike of capital. They are looting it through speculation and profiteering. They are provoking scarcity through hoarding.
While they always talk of democracy, they are not willing to submit to the will of the majority. They will never be reconciled to a government that carries out policies in the interests of the people. If we have not learned this lesson in sixteen years, we will never learn it. It is time to finish the job once and for all.
Faced with the open threat of counterrevolution, President Maduro has appealed to the working class to unite and mobilise in defence of the Revolution. He has called on them “to strengthen the workers’ militias”. And he is supporting the setting up of Anti-Coup Committees. Such measures are absolutely correct and necessary. But the question must also be asked: how is it possible that after all the advances of the Revolution, it is still in danger? Why, after so much time, is the Revolution not irreversible?
The reformists will argue that the problem is that the Revolution has gone too far, that it is necessary to make concessions to the “civilized opposition” and win the support of the middle classes. Not long ago the Bolivarian leadership itself was appealing to “peace and love”. They were attempting to win the affections of the opposition, like a man who tries to pacify a pet dog by tickling its belly. Unfortunately, this particular dog has very sharp teeth and a bad temper.
The old Romans used to say: “Si pacem vis, para belllum” – “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” That is very sound advice! The war between the classes is even more pitiless than war between the nations. The gulf between rich and poor, between oppressor and oppressed, exploiter and exploited cannot be overcome by pleasant words and speeches. It can only be settled by struggle, and woe to the side that loses!
This fact is clear to all. Yet there are none so blind as they who will not see. And there are none so blind as reformists who consider themselves realists but in fact are the worst kind of utopians. One day they make appeals to the masses to mobilise in defence of the Revolution, and the next day the government once again makes appeals for conciliation with its enemies, offering concessions regarding access to foreign exchange and other matters.
Does this “clever” tactic work? Has it ever worked? No it has not! On the contrary, the entire history of the Bolivarian Revolution since 2002 proves beyond any doubt that all attempts to pacify the opposition through concessions and dialogue have precisely the opposite result to that which was intended. The counterrevolutionaries interpret this as a sign of weakness. And weakness invites aggression.
What happened to the organizers of the coup in 2002 and the sabotage of 2003? The majority of the leaders of the counterrevolutionary opposition have been allowed to walk free and are now amongst the chief organisers of the current reactionary offensive. Little or no action has been taken against those responsible for the agitation that ended with the death of at least eleven people after Maduro’s election victory on April 15, 2013. The messages coming out of Miraflores are mixed and contradictory. But the situation does not admit ambiguity. A clear and bold lead is required.
The cancer of bureaucracy
Over the years of Chávez’s rise to power, his enemies accused him of many things. But nobody ever tried to accuse him of personal corruption. Anybody who knew him even slightly could immediately see that the man was completely incorruptible. He was fighting, not for personal enrichment but for the cause of socialism.
Some years ago I had an interesting conversation with the President when he invited me to accompany him in an election campaign in the island of Margarita. In the middle of the fervour of the people, the president turned to me and said: “See, Alan, in spite of all the faults of the Bolivarian revolution, this revolution is still alive”.
That could be clearly seen in the multitude which surrounded the car shouting “Viva Chávez!" At that point the conversation was interrupted by the shouting and clapping of the masses, who once again surrounded and slowed down the car in order to reach President Chávez and give him their support, kisses and petitions. And yet Chávez was obviously worried about some things. Turning to me with a gesture of frustration he said: “You see all this, and still we have not been able to win the governor here.” And pointing at the candidate William Fariñas, he asked: “Alan, if this man is elected, what should he do?" To which I replied straight away: “He must listen to the people, understand their message and carry it out”.
“Precisely”, said Chávez, “but that is the problem that we are facing. Some governors, after being elected lose contact with the rank and file. They surround themselves with rich people, beautiful women, etc. and lose contact with the people. This is an ideological problem. As long as we do not have governors who are ideologically prepared we will always have the same problem. We must win the battle of ideas. You are a good writer, why don't you write some pamphlets explaining the ideas of socialism in a simple way? Here we could distribute them massively.”
I replied: “Yes, I can do that, and I agree that an ideological struggle in the party is needed, but also needed are mechanisms of control from below”. At this point, for the first time, the voice of the President sounded a bit tired: “I cannot do everything,” he said. “It is absolutely necessary for the people to participate in this process and to take control in their own hands”.
I wrote at the time: “These are some of the contradictions of the Revolution which need to be solved.” But one year after the death of Hugo Chávez the problems that concerned him deeply have not been resolved. On the contrary, they have become ever deeper and more widespread.
As long as Chávez was alive the bourgeois and bureaucrats had to keep their heads down. They were forced to hide their careerism under a red shirt. At public meetings and congresses of the PSUV, they learned to shout “Viva Chávez! Viva la Revolucion!” and they always shouted louder than anyone else. But all the time they were working to undermine Chávez and the Revolution. Respectful and servile to the President’s face, they whispered about him behind his back: “What is all this nonsense about socialism? The man does not know what he is talking about. He is a hopeless Utopian,” and so on. Behind the scenes a subterranean war was taking place against Chávez and the Left. Left-wing ministers and activists were systematically removed, isolated, neutralised.
Chávez always drew inspiration from contact with the revolutionary masses and in turn he inspired them in a way that no other Bolivarian leader was capable of. The bureaucrats who have no contact with the masses and no feeling for their problems, whose entire life passes from one air-conditioned office to another, fear the masses like the plague. They always felt uncomfortable with Chávez’s meetings with the masses and did all they could to limit them. They acted as a kind of thick filter, preventing access to the President of rank and file activists, militants and left-wingers.
During his lifetime the President was surrounded by an iron ring of bureaucrats who systematically sabotaged his decrees and impeded all access of Marxists and left-wingers to his presence. I have seen this with my own eyes, not yesterday but even ten years ago when Chávez was very much alive. I myself was a victim of this for years and witnessed the sabotage that was carried to extreme levels by the clique that surrounded Chávez. They tried by all means to prevent my contacts with him, though they could not always succeed. I was told quite clearly: “We do not want you to speak with the President.” My experience was by no means unique.
Now that Chávez is no more, the problem is solved. The people whom Chávez described as the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy feel they can operate without restraint. They feel that they are masters. This is fatal for the Revolution. Bureaucracy is a cancer that gnaws at the entrails of the Revolution and devours it from the inside like a monstrous tapeworm.
Golpe de Timon
The right-wing opposition seizes on every problem and difficulty and exaggerate it to blacken the name of the Revolution. Naturally we must rebut the lies of the opposition and fight the counterrevolutionary intrigues. The problem occurs when some of the problems that the right wing tries to exploit are based, at least to some extent, on reality.
Sixteen years after the start of the Revolution major social advances have been achieved. It is absolutely necessary to defend these gains and combat the counterrevolution. But can one honestly say that sixteen years later the goals of the Revolution have been realised? Hugo Chávez certainly did not think so, and neither do we.
He did not make saccharine speeches aimed at calming the nervous system of bureaucrats but, on the contrary, expressed his discontent and frustration with the way things were going. This can be seen very clearly in his last speech to the Council of Ministers that was published with the title: Golpe de Timon (Shift the Rudder).
On October 20, 2012, a few days after winning the presidential election with 56% of the vote, President Chávez held the first cabinet meeting, during which he sharply criticised the lack of progress in the Revolution and demanded self-criticism of his ministers for their failings.
At the centre of his criticism was the idea that not enough had been done to promote the democratic running of society through the Communes. By this he meant democratic organs of popular control and administration. It is worth quoting his words on the subject:
“Then we come to the issue of democracy, socialism is in essence absolutely democratic, while capitalism is at its core anti-democratic, exclusive, based on the imposition of capital and of capitalist elites. On the contrary, socialism liberates, and socialism is democracy, and democracy is socialism, politically, socially, and economically.
"There some factors that are crucial to the transition: one of them is the transformation of the economic base of the country to make it essential and substantially democratic, because the economic base of a capitalist country is not democratic, it is undemocratic, is exclusive and hence the generation of wealth and great wealth for a minority, an elite, the big bourgeoisie, the large monopolies, and at the same time also the generation of poverty and misery for the majority.”
In that speech Chávez emphasized the central idea is that society must undergo a fundamental change, both in the relations of production and the state structures. Chávez insisted that capitalism is slavery and socialism can only be established through the radical abolition of capitalism, in other words, through a revolution.
He complained bitterly that Communes had not been created even though there was a Ministry of the Communes. And the President drew the correct conclusion: “Because many people believe that it's up to this ministry [to form] the Communes. That's a big mistake that we are making. Let us not commit it anymore!” And he added: “Now, the Commune means people's power, not rule from Miraflores nor from the headquarters of this or that ministry from which we will solve the problems.”
It is a fundamental mistake to think that soviets can be created by administrative order, from above, from ministries. Even if the ministers had any interest in creating soviets (they do not, of course), they would not know where to begin. The bureaucratic mentality of the state official, with its organic attitudes of contempt for the “ordinary people” makes it not only sceptical towards the creative power of the masses but actively hostile to it.
Communes and soviets
The idea of the Commune makes reference to the Paris Commune of 1871, the first example of a workers’ state in the world. The Commune was a glorious episode in the history of the world working class. Here for the first time, the popular masses with the workers at their head, overthrew the old state and at least began the task of transforming society. With no clearly defined plan of action, leadership or organisation, the masses displayed an astonishing degree of courage, initiative and creativity. Marx and Engels followed the developments in France very closely and based themselves upon the experience to work out their theory of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” Following in their footsteps Lenin used the Paris Commune as his model for workers’ power in Russia:
“The Commune sprang up spontaneously. No one consciously prepared for it in an organised way. The unsuccessful war with Germany, the privations suffered during the siege, the unemployment among the proletariat and the ruin among the lower middle classes; the indignation of the masses against the upper classes and against authorities who had displayed utter incompetence, the vague unrest among the working class, which was discontented with its lot and was striving for a different social system; the reactionary composition of the National Assembly, which roused apprehensions as to the fate of the republic – all this and many other factors combined to drive the population of Paris to revolution on March 18, which unexpectedly placed power in the hands of the National Guard, in the hands of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie which had sided with it .” (Lenin, In Memory of the Commune)
The masses always learn from life, not from books. Of course, it is the duty of a revolutionary tendency to prepare in advance, to train and educate cadres. But these cadres must be capable of finding a road to the masses. Bureaucrats always imagine themselves to be the cleverest people standing above the “ignorant” masses. They see the workers as little children only fit to be given orders “from above”. What a difference with Marx and Engels who, without for a moment idealising the Commune or closing their eyes to its confusions, shortcomings and mistakes, nevertheless from the first moment understood its true significance!
The position of Hugo Chávez had nothing in common with that of the haughty bureaucrats. He understood that without the Communes – that is to say, without the conscious participation of the working class in the administration of industry, society and the state, socialism would be just an empty word on the lips of an official.
Despite all the undoubted advances of the past sixteen years, the state in Venezuela still remains a capitalist state that has been anointed with a little “socialist” oil. Many of the officials were left over from the old Fourth Republic, and of the new ones, many are careerists who pay lip service to the Revolution in order to preserve their jobs but who can change their position tomorrow if the counterrevolution appears to be succeeding.
The bureaucracy is acting as a Trojan horse within the state apparatus. Marx said that “social being determines consciousness.” Obviously if an official earns millions of Bolivars he will behave like a capitalist. How should this bureaucratic capitalist state be abolished and replaced by a state under the control of the workers, the peasants and the people? The answer was given by the four conditions for such a state, which Lenin drew from the experience of the Paris Commune:
- Democratic election and right of recall of all public officials,
- No permanent army but the people in arms,
- No official to receive a wage higher than that of a skilled worker,
- Progressively the rotation of all positions. As Lenin said: “if everybody is a bureaucrat no-one is a bureaucrat.”
The October Revolution in 1917 brought to power a new revolutionary government, which took its authority from the Congress of Soviets. The urgent task facing the government was to spread the authority of Soviet power – the rule of the working class – throughout all Russia. On January 5, 1918, the government issued a directive which declared that the local soviets were from then on invested with all the powers held by the former administration, and added: “The entire country must be covered with a network of new soviets.”
In its origins, the soviet – the most democratic and flexible form of popular representation yet devised – was simply an extended strike committee. Born in mass struggle, the soviets (or workers' councils) assumed an extremely broad sweep, and ultimately became transformed into organs of revolutionary direct government. The delegates were elected at every level, and subject to immediate recall. No deputy or official received more than the wage of a skilled worker. There was no bureaucratic elite.
Like Chávez, Lenin was anxious for the masses to involve themselves in the running of industry and the state. In November 1917 he wrote an appeal in Pravda:
“Comrades, working people! Remember that now you yourselves are at the helm of state. No one will help you if you yourselves do not unite and take into your hands all affairs of state... Get on with the job yourselves; begin right at the bottom, do not wait for anyone.” (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 297)
In December 1917 Lenin wrote:
“One of the most important tasks of today, if not the most important, is to develop [the] independent initiative of the workers, and of all the working and exploited people generally, develop it as widely as possible in creative organisational work. At all costs we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called upper classes, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society.” (LCW, Vol. 26, p. 409)
The democratic regime established by Lenin and Trotsky was liquidated under Stalin and replaced by a monstrous bureaucratic caricature. Unfortunately, not a few “cadres” of the PSUV are themselves former Stalinists who were miseducated in the Stalinist school of “Marxism-Leninism” and have never understood or accepted Lenin’s idea of workers’ democracy. For many years these people gave unconditional support to the Stalinist bureaucratic regime, justifying all its crimes. That was bad enough. But since the fall of the USSR they have come to the false conclusion that socialism cannot work and have embraced capitalism.
These former “communists” have become the worst kind of reformists, while retaining all the old Stalinist bureaucratic tendencies. Having abandoned completely the perspective of socialism, they have no faith whatever in the creative potential of the working class and no trust in its ability to run industry and society. This is the exact opposite of what Hugo Chávez stood for.
Workers’ control sabotaged
Far from encouraging things like workers’ control and self-management, which is the starting point for the genuinely democratic control of a socialist society, the bureaucrats have waged war against them and done everything in their power to sabotage them and stamp them out.
The problem is precisely that bureaucrats from the ministries have systematically stifled and extinguished the germs of popular power and workers’ control in Bolivar and many other areas. This attitude, which runs contrary to Chavez’s, who wholeheartedly embraced the idea of workers’ control when the workers themselves made the proposal, has disheartened many rank and file militants and therefore has weakened the Revolution and simultaneously strengthened the hand of reaction.
Even in the elaboration of the new Labour Law (LOT) the regulation of workers’ councils was left out because of opposition from the bureaucracy. In any case, the only way to implement workers’ control is from below, through the direct action and initiative of the workers themselves. But here they meet with the active resistance of the bureaucracy – including the trade union bureaucracy.
The position of the leadership of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Central (CBST), regarding the creation of workers' councils, is openly hostile. CBST president Wills Rangel claimed that workers’ control in state enterprises and other workplaces will “only serve to create further division”. Rangel conveniently forgets that it was workers 'control that saved the Revolution at the time of the bosses’ sabotage and lock out in 2002-3. And experience has shown that when the workers have the chance of running their own workplaces, productivity has dramatically increased.
There is in Venezuela a vibrant movement for workers’ control, partly basing itself on the experience of occupied factories such as INAF, Inveval and Gotcha. But ultimately, workers’ control can only succeed if it leads to a broader movement for the expropriation of all the main levers of the economy, in particular the banks and major industries and the establishment of a socialist planned economy under the democratic control and administration of the working class.
All over the country the bureaucracy and the reformists, those so-called Bolivarians who wear red shirts but in fact are serving the cause of the bourgeoisie within the Movement, are doing everything in their power to stifle and sabotage the revolutionary initiative of the masses, just as they did everything in their power to sabotage and block every revolutionary initiative of President Chávez when he was alive.
President Chávez created the PSUV to change society in the interest of the majority of the Venezuelan people: the workers, the peasants, the poor and dispossessed. He did not intend it to be a vehicle for the advancement of careerists. There is widespread discontent amongst the Bolivarian ranks at the way in which the movement is controlled by bureaucrats at the top at all levels. The process of selection of candidates for elections, for instance, has already created serious problems in several places, with alternative revolutionary candidates standing against the official ones.
President Maduro has made calls for unity and discipline. We are naturally in favour of unity and discipline, but these can only be guaranteed by allowing the fullest degree of internal democracy. At the congress there must be a full and free discussion of ideas and differences. The Party leadership must be genuinely representative of the rank and file. Only then will it be possible to demand unity and discipline of the membership. But the outlook for the forthcoming congress of the PSUV does not look good. Already it has been announced that half of the delegates will be mayors and governors. The rank and file is being elbowed to one side by the careerists and office seekers.
Jorge Martin writes:
“Since the April 2013 presidential election a number of prominent radical or left wing Bolivarian journalists have been removed from the state TV and radio channels without explanation. There is a feeling that these are concessions made to the opposition media so that they also tone down criticism of the government. Whatever the truth might be, the result is clear: critical left wing voices are silenced or denied access to a larger audience. None of these concessions have the effect of moderating the opposition, but on the contrary, can demoralise the most active elements of the revolutionary movement”.
While displaying the most touching tenderness towards corrupt officials, army officers and the like, the bureaucracy is implacable in repressing the left wing. The fate of my friend Eduardo Samán is a very clear example of this. Eduardo is known to be a man of undeniable honesty and integrity, a dedicated supporter of the Bolivarian socialist revolution. He is respected and admired by the masses because of his vigorous campaign against the bourgeois war of economic sabotage.
However, this admiration is not shared by the Bolivarian Fifth Column who hated him. Not for the first time Samán has now been removed from his position with no credible explanation. Many other honest activists have been marginalised, expelled or removed from office. These actions by the reformists are what is undermining the Revolution. They sow disillusionment and scepticism among the masses and have a devastating effect on the morale of the chavista activists. This is what is corroding the Revolution from within and preparing the ground for new offensives of the counterrevolution.
Carry out Chavez’ legacy!
I very well remember the speech when President Chávez first announced that he was a socialist. I remember how thousands of red shirted Chavistas rose to their feet to cheer and applaud. But I also noticed that this wild enthusiasm was not shared by all the Bolivarian ministers. There were some very glum faces even on the platform. Not everyone, it seems, was in favour of the President’s revolutionary socialist agenda.
From the very beginning Chávez’s revolutionary socialist message has been attacked from two quarters: the open enemies of the Revolution and the hidden enemies within its ranks. The reformists have never been reconciled to the idea of socialism in Venezuela. But all history, and especially the history of Latin America, shows that you cannot make half a revolution. The Revolution cannot stop half way, and if it does, disaster will follow. At that meeting when Chávez decisively came down in favour of socialism, he poured scorn on those reformists who argued that there was a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. Admitting that he had once believed in this idea, Chávez explicitly rejected it, calling it “a farce”. “There is no third way between capitalism and socialism,” he said. And he was one hundred percent correct.
One of the main contradictions of reformism is that it makes it impossible for the capitalist market economy to function, and at the same time does not introduce a socialist planned economy. Thus we end up in the worst of all worlds. For a time the Venezuelan economy survived on the basis of huge reserves of oil. But that could not last forever. The failure to carry through to the end the expropriation of the oligarchy means that it is impossible to plan the productive forces.
It is true that in Caracas there is a Ministry of Planning. But you cannot plan what you do not control, and you cannot control what you do not own. Because key elements of the economy remain in private hands, the bourgeoisie, which has always been hostile to the Bolivarian Revolution, is able to sabotage the economy with a strike of capital. Money has been flowing out of the country, paralysing productive investment. The government attempts to halt this by means of controls. But this does not tackle the roots of the problem, which is the fact that private capitalists control key areas of productive investment.
This represents a serious threat to the future of the Revolution. Well-heeled officials, mayors and governors regularly deliver complacent speeches full of bombastic rhetoric and soothing optimism. To listen to them, one would think that there are no problems, no difficulties, and that everything is for the best in the best of all Bolivarian worlds. But the common people know differently.
The rapid increase in inflation (56.3% on an annual rate in January) shows that the economic crisis is deepening, just as a thermometer indicates a rising temperature and a worsening illness. On the other hand, there is growing scarcity of certain products (a record 28% scarcity index in January). These two factors are corroding the value of wages, leading to falling living standards. This in turn is placing a growing strain on the patience and loyalty of the masses. On the other hand, it infuriates the middle class and drives it into the arms of reaction.
At every decisive stage the masses have saved the Revolution and pushed it forward. In 2002 the masses – the true motor force of the Revolution – came onto the streets to risk their lives to save the Revolution, while the bureaucrats were cowering under their beds or queuing up to get the first plane to foreign parts. The Bolivarian Revolution will survive as long as the masses – the working class, the peasants, the urban and rural poor – remain loyal to it. But the faith of the masses in the Revolution has been put through a severe test, and this is placing the Revolution in great danger.
The only forces that can defend the Revolution are the revolutionary masses, and in the first place the working class. The workers would fight with far greater vigour and determination if they were defending their own factories under workers’ control. By sabotaging the elements of workers’ control, the bureaucracy is acting like a man who is sawing off the branch of a tree upon which he is sitting. In the end workers will say: “What is the point of responding to these appeals? We have heard it all before. They talk about socialism and Revolution, but we cannot see much difference between the Bolivarian bosses and the ones we had before.”
The only effective way to defend the revolution is to complete its tasks, by replacing the old capitalist state with a new revolutionary one based on the workers’ councils and the communes, and the expropriation of the means of production so that the economy can be democratically planned. That would be the best homage to the struggle that Hugo Chávez dedicated his life to.