I went to the Chávez meeting in London today, hosted by Ken Livingstone. I sat through two and half hours of the most turgid, vapid, empty rhetoric interspersed with self-congratulation and pontification.
On the platform and around were Chávez’s array of hand raisers, from Tariq Ali to Richard Gott, from Alan Woods to the VIC. All got a name check for their uncritical promotion of his cause.
The speech was a series of disconnected anecdotes about “chatting with Fidel”, a bit of history (Bolivar: “cursed is the soldier that fires on his own people”), a bit of reassurance (“I don’t eat babies”) and some warnings about impeding barbarism.
The theme, if there was one, was that socialism is the answer. Christian socialism, Castroite Stalinist socialism, humanist socialism – just about every kind of socialism except working class socialism from below, which didn’t get a mention.
I found myself asking why so much of the left had fallen for Chávez’s oratory. Robin, a comrade who had been leafleting with me outside before the meeting, gave me the answer. He had challenged one of the many London Chávistas about the regime, and was told: “Hope. Without Chávez, there is no hope.” When pressed further, this poor sod ran off demoralised.
I think the point is: given the state of the left, many socialists and activists are willing to accept just about anyone who seems progressive. They have suspended all critical faculties to jump on one of the few bandwagons going. It’s a sad indictment of the state of the left that only a few of us were there to tell the truth about Chávez.
Below is the leaflet AWL comrades gave out.
Chávez in London: Don’t believe the hype
Hugo Chávez’s visit to London is generating a lot of interest on the left, eager to discuss what’s going on in Venezuela. This would be a good thing – if the left told the truth about the reality in Venezuela and didn’t prettify Chávez to the point of sycophancy.
Sadly the visit has galvanised his left-wing flatterers and courtiers, from the Greater London Authority to the Hands Off Venezuela and Venezuela Information Centre, to uncritically cheerlead his achievements and ignore his shortcomings.
Chávez has won a fistful of elections and has spent some of the windfall from higher world oil prices on welfare measures, improving the health, education and housing of some of the poorest people in Venezuela. He has seen off a coup attempt, a bosses lockout and a referendum designed to oust him.
But socialists, activists and anti-capitalists need a sober evaluation of Chávez. We should not be so overwhelmed by the depressing situation in the British labour movement that we lose all critical faculties when analysing a regime that has passed some limited reforms.
What sort of revolution?
Chávez calls his movement the “Bolivarian revolution”. But he has not led a revolution, in a political or social sense - by smashing the state or overturning the social relations in the country. Venezuela today is still a capitalist economy, with a state that supports capitalism - a place where workers are still exploited by capital. This is the system Chávez manages. (1)
Chávez is backed by sections of Venezuelan national capital. His election was supported by insurance companies, PR firms, developers and even some bankers. He still has support from business leaders, media moguls, small business organisations and from state capitalist sectors, such as the oil industry, which provides much of the government’s revenue.
Of course the opposition (the “esqualidos”) are backed by big business and the US. But for all his “anti-imperialist” rhetoric, Chávez still supplies the US with oil and welcomes foreign investment. (2)
What sort of socialist?
Chávez says he’s a socialist and is building 21st century socialism. He is friends with many representatives of 20th century Stalinism – such as Fidel Castro – and is explicitly clear that he’s not for working class socialism in the tradition of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. (3)
Rather than believe the rhetoric, we should look at Chávez’s movement and what it represents. It’s clear from his origins and his administration that Chávez is a Bonaparte - a military populist reformer who balances between different class fractions while resting on the core of the bourgeois state – the army.
The MBR-200 movement originated in the army. Chávez makes it clear to sympathetic journalists like Richard Gott and Marta Harnecker that the secret of his rule is the “civilian-military alliance”. There are a large number of military personnel in civilian positions – as many as 800 senior government jobs and nine state governors are held by officers. (4)
Chávez hasn’t indulged in widespread repression of the trade unions or social movements yet. However police and the army attacks have taken place during the floods, against indigenous people and environmentalists in Pemón and during a steel strike in Orinoco in 2004. This should make socialists wary of his power.
The labour movement
The key test of Chávez is his relationship to the working class, especially to the UNT, the emerging trade union movement. Although Chávez has backed the UNT and promised not to interfere in its affairs, there is a well-organised Chávista faction (the FBT) with strong ties to the Ministry of Labour involved in the movement.
Other independent trade unionists, such as UNT leader Orlando Chirino, complain about issues such as the length of the working week, the minimum wage and conditions in the public sector. Employers still sack workers with impunity.
Venezuela still has anti-union laws, which make it difficult for trade unions to organise and take action. Last year the national assembly discussed reforms of the penal code that would have limited the right to strike in the public sector. Although the proposals were knocked back, they are a warning.
The Chávez government has encouraged some worker participation schemes, known as co-management and nationalised some companies. These expropriations are generally of small, private firms that have been closed for years or loss-making state firms. Workers are consulted, but they do not make the key decisions. It is a long way from workers’ control. Co-management is mostly absent from strategic industries – notably oil.
There is a real danger that the UNT could be co-opted into Chávez’s political machine and become a prop of the regime. Many elements of the old union bureaucracy have coalesced around the UNT.
The other danger, if the government can’t get its way, is that it will turn on workers and their organisations. When employers don’t make a profit, or want to introduce new technology, or to change working practices, there will be conflict between bosses and workers, whether firms are state or privately owned. When workers face the bosses and the government, you have to choose which side you’re on.
What sort of solidarity?
No socialist wants to see Chávez overthrown by the bourgeois opposition or by its US backers. No one should believe the demonisation of Chávez by the Bush administration. Of course we are opposed to US intervention in Venezuela.
But a solidarity movement has to choose carefully who to support and who to ally with. At present the various “Venezuela solidarity” campaigns operating in the UK are in solidarity with the Venezuelan government, promoters of its foreign and domestic policies and acts as cheerleaders for Hugo Chávez.
What is needed is a solidarity movement with Venezuelan workers, This would be a movement independent of Chávez and one prepared to back genuine workers struggles even when they come up against Chávez’s government. Such struggles have taken place in recent months, by steel workers, miners and subway construction workers.
It would also be a movement that champions the UNT and the independent, class struggle trade unionists who are fighting the employers, the state and the Chávista trade union bureaucracy.
Marxists like the AWL also believe socialists in Britain should make direct links with class struggle militants and socialists in Venezuela – and encourage them to form there own working class party, independent of all bourgeois parties and from Chávez.
The working class that is the only force that can make socialism, in Venezuela and across the globe. To do that we need rational, class politics, not saints or saviours.
The truth about Chávez in his own words
1) “I said this before becoming president… Venezuela is a kind of a bomb. We are going to begin to deactivate the mechanism of that bomb. And today, it’s not that it is totally deactivated, but I am sure that it is much less likely that this bomb explode today.” (Chávez to Venezuelan and U.S. business representatives, 6 July 2005 www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1495
2) “Foreign corporations should rest assured and have faith in our laws and in our government. We’re doing very good business with them. Almost all the oil companies in the world are in Venezuela – Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, Petrobras, Statoil, Shell.” (Chávez in Fortune magazine, 3 October 2005)
3) “I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so.” (Chávez to Tariq Ali, Counterpunch, 16 August 2004)
4) “I understand the soul of the army and I am part of that soul.” (Chávez in Richard Gott, Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution, 2005, p.269)