Chávez’s Trotskyist cheerleaders

Submitted by Matthew on 18 September, 2013 - 12:32

Pablo Velasco concludes his assessment of Hugo Chávez’s political legacy and the relationship of the “Bolivarian” state to Venezuela’s working class. In this article, he looks at the attitude of international Trotskyism, and particularly the “International Marxist Tendency” to Chávez.


The accommodation and prostration of the apparently “Trotskyist” left to Chávez was one of the principal signifiers of a wider ideological collapse of socialism that took place in the early years of this century.

Alongside support for the murderous Islamist “resistance” (instead of trade unionists and secular forces) in Iraq, support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Iranian state against Israel, support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, along with quietism over Libya and Syria, the abasement before Chavismo was a clear sign of the residual gangrene of Stalinism within the workers’ movement.

How did the left divide on Chávez? Workers’ Liberty was one of the few critical voices on the Marxist left to characterise Chávez as a Bonapartist. The fragments of the Workers’ Power/Permanent Revolution group took a similar position in Britain, although Workers’ Power were credulous about Chávez’s creation of the PSUV, and advocated that Venezuelan independent socialists join it. The International Socialist Organization in the US was also somewhat critical.

The British SWP, along with the “Fourth International” (Socialist Resistance in Britain) and others such as the Weekly Worker/”Communist Party of Great Britain” group, took a typically centrist position, welcoming the Bolivarian “revolutionary process” (and advocating working within it), without clearly identifying its class character and its dangers for working-class independence and political representation.

Thus Joseph Choonara’s SWP pamphlet, Venezuela and Revolution in the 21st Century (2006) cheered on the “revolutionary process”, and pulled its punches about Chávez. It took Chávez’s rhetoric about socialism at face value, arguing that “Venezuela has placed the questions of socialism and workers’ power back on the agenda”. Worse, the SWP advised Venezuelan socialists to “work within the revolutionary process”, accepting the hegemony of Chávez, going along with his methods, and remaining silent about the nature and direction of Bolivarianism.

At the far end of the spectrum has been the Australian Green Left Weekly, whose longstanding Castroism was complemented by its support for Chávez’s Bolivarian project. Although its reports from Venezuela were sometimes informative of developments in the workers’ movement, the paper provided no independent strategy for Venezuelan workers, tying them hand and foot to Chávez.

However the accolade for the most sycophantic “Trotskyist” capitulation to Chavismo must surely go to the “International Marxist Tendency”, which publishes Socialist Appeal in Britain and runs the misnamed “In Defence of Marxism” website. Its leading theoretician Alan Woods was previously infamous for his comments, during the Militant Tendency days, about “dark masses” in Afghanistan, which provided cover for Militant’s support for the Russian invasion in 1980. After Militant split in the early 90s (with those around Peter Taaffe going on to found the Socialist Party, and sect leader Ted Grant, Alan Woods, and others founding Socialist Appeal), the group was in an advanced state of decomposition. Its embrace of Chavismo gave it some new life, although on a reactionary basis.

Socialist Appeal launched the “Hands off Venezuela” (HOV) campaign, which went beyond the laudable goal of opposing US intervention in Venezuela and tried to put a socialist gloss on Chávez’s bourgeois and Bonapartist politics. The HOV statement requires signatories to agree to the “defence of the revolutionary process” in Venezuela, and its website is subtitled “in solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution”.

Woods’ book The Venezuelan Revolution (2005) deserves its place in the catalogue of infamy, providing a “Marxist” rationale for dissolving working-class politics in Venezuela into Chavismo.

The book recounts a relationship instigated by Chávez to find international apologists. Chávez flattered Woods by reading extracts from his book Reason in Revolt on his TV show “Alo Presidente” on 21 March 2004. He also talked about the HOV campaign for 20 minutes. At the filming of “Alo Presidente” on Sunday 18 April 2004, Woods was “placed in the front row, in a prominent position immediately opposite the president”. He was also “received by President Chávez for a private audience that lasted well over an hour”.

Chávez apparently flattered Woods on camera, reading from another book and saying, not without a touch of irony, that “he who does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it”. The website report coos that, “In the course of the programme, Hugo Chávez mentioned Alan at least three times” and “has given his personal support to the publishing of the Venezuelan edition of Reason in Revolt”.

Woods’ own account of his visit provides Chávez with an unqualified endorsement. He says: “Hugo Chávez for the first time gave the poor and downtrodden a voice and some hope.” Woods swoons: “From my limited contacts with Hugo Chávez, I am firmly convinced of his personal honesty, courage and dedication to the cause of the masses, the oppressed and exploited.”

Chávez apparently told Woods that he didn’t consider himself a Marxist “because I have not read enough Marxist books”. To this Woods wrote: “From this conversation I had the distinct impression that Hugo Chávez was looking for ideas, and that he was genuinely interested in the ideas of Marxism and anxious to learn.” He finishes his report by saying: “I believe that a growing number in the Bolivarian movement are looking for the ideas of Marxism. I am sure that this applies to many of its leaders. And Hugo Chávez? He told me that he is not a Marxist because he had not read enough Marxist books. But he is reading them now.”

Woods provided a “Marxist” capitulation for the “Bolivarian revolution” in two long essays: “Marxism and the Venezuelan Revolution” and “Theses on revolution and counterrevolution in Venezuela”, both written after his visit in 2004.

Woods offered an interpretation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to justify turning Chávez into a (unconscious) socialist revolutionary. He wrote that socialist revolutions normally require a Marxist party to be victorious – but, since this is absent today, “all sorts of peculiar variants are possible”. He made it clear that Chávez is such a peculiar locum: “In the absence of a mass revolutionary Marxist party the forces of revolution have gathered around Chávez and the Bolivarian Movement.”

Woods spread the most ridiculous illusions about the peaceful road to socialism. He wrote that, in Venezuela in April 2002, “it would have been possible to carry out a peaceful transformation of society after the collapse of the coup”. He added that a peaceful transformation was also possible after the bosses’ lockout in 2002-2003. He followed his mentor Ted Grant, who argued for similar forms of substitutionism and peaceful overturn in Portugal in 1974, adding for good measure that “the lower officer caste becomes – for a period – the unconscious agent of history”. Grant also saw the “proletarian Bonapartism” of the Stalinist states as progressive against capitalism, while Woods misread Bonapartism in Venezuela for a genuine workers’ movement.

Woods wrote that the big industries must be nationalised, but insisted this “can be done by introducing emergency legislation through the congress” – a version of the old “enabling act in parliament” that Militant used to preach in Britain as the key step to building socialism. He added that an appeal should be made to workers to introduce workers’ control to “ensure a peaceful and orderly transition to a planned economy”. Woods wrote that the masses must “purge” the state. He believed in 2004 that the Chávez government had carried out a partial purge — but “a serious purge can only be carried from below”.

So: the state does not need to be smashed, and the army does not need to split — the existing state merely needs to be “purged” (“from below”, of course!) to ensure a “peaceful and orderly” transition to socialism. This is an utterly reformist perspective.

Woods’ method is well summed up in the opening and closing paragraphs of his “Theses on revolution and counterrevolution in Venezuela”. He described Venezuela as polarised between “two antagonistic camps” — the “revolution” (including Chávez) and the “counterrevolution”.

He calls on Marxists to become the “extreme left wing of the Bolivarian movement”. By grouping the working class with Chávez, he effectively does away with our class as an independent political element. The workers are subordinated to the Bolivarian revolution, with no interests separate from Chávez – in short, they are merely a stage army for petty bourgeois politics.

Woods included a chapter entitled “foxes and grapes” in his book, selectively quoting from AWL articles without citation. We debated his supporters on a number of occasions, where they played the role of energetic but uncritical defenders of Chávez. Woods sat with Ken Livingstone, Tariq Ali, and others fawning over Chávez during his visit to London in 2006. His supporters tried to organise flag-waving outside Chávez’s hotel in a sickening parallel of royalist pageantry. Meanwhile, most IMT supporters in Venezuela took Woods’ advice very seriously and dissolved into Chávez’s PSUV.

After Chávez’s death, Woods appeared on television and wrote a tribute, demonstrating that he has learned nothing of value to Venezuelan workers or indeed the workers of the world. He repeats the passage about Chávez not being a Marxist “because he hadn’t read enough Marxist books… but he is reading them now”. But nearly a decade on, with capitalism still extant and the bourgeois state still intact in Venezuela, this slippery formula simply does not wash.

If socialism is to be renewed in the 21st century, it must be scrubbed clean of substitutionist politics that look to other class forces — Stalinist states, Islamists, or petty-bourgeois Bonapartes like Chávez — to carry out historical goals that only an independently organised and politically conscious revolutionary workers’ movement can fulfil.