By Paul Hampton
The shape of Venezuelan “21st century socialism” has become clearer since the election, with Hugo Chávez announcing plans to nationalise strategic industries and form a new ruling party. The direction is towards state capitalism, headed by a Bonapartist bureaucracy.
On 8 January, in a speech quoted on the Venezuelanalysis website, Chávez announced plans to nationalise key industries that were privatised under previous governments, such as the telecommunications company CANTV and the electricity companies such as EdC. He said: “All of those sectors that are in an area as important and strategic for all of us, such as electricity, should be nationalised.”
At present the majority shareholder in CANTV is the US-based Verizon Communications, although last year it tried to sell its stake to a Mexican consortium — and Spain’s Telefonica. According to the Financial Times, EdC has always been a private company and is owned by US firm AES.
Chávez also announced that the state oil company PdVSA would push for a majority stake in four Orinoco oil projects where it is currently in a minority with multinationals. The four Orinoco joint ventures are with ExxonMobil, Conoco, and Chevron, Total, BP, and Statoil.
These announcements follow a speech Chávez gave on 15 December, when he shut down his electoral front, the Movement for a Fifth Republic and pledged to create a new ruling party, provisionally called the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Chávez posed membership of the new party on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. He said: “The new party cannot be the sum of old faces. That would be a deceit. We don’t have the time for endless debates about this. We have to build this new party from below now. So, you decide what you are going to do because there’s no time to lose.”
The turn is clearly in a Bonapartist direction. In his 8 January speech, he called the preceding years of his presidency a “phase of transition,” which had ended. The next phase, “the National Simon Bolivar Project of 2007-2021” would be towards “Bolivarian Socialism”.
The year 2021 is significant for Chávez because it is the 200th anniversary of Venezuelan independence. It also suggests he may amend the constitution so he can stand for another term in 2013. He raised the prospect of an enabling law to make constitutional changes, such as abolishing central bank independence and for nationalisation. This would give him the power to make other laws by decree.
Another sign of growing Bonapartism is Chávez’s decision not to renew the broadcast concession of the oppositional TV station RCTV. The concession is due to expire in May and Chávez announced last week that he would not renew it because RCTV supported the coup attempt and lockout in 2002.
Chávez hinted at the kind of populist state he wants to create by calling for an “explosion of communal power”. He said he wanted the “communal councils”, made up of 200 to 400 families, to eventually eclipse the existing power structures, so as to create a “communal state.” What is needed, said Chávez, is to “dismantle the bourgeois state” because all states “were born to prevent revolutions.” Instead, the old state would have to be turned into a “revolutionary state”.
Chávez’s speech did not promise anything for workers in struggle — such as the workers of Sanitarios Maracay (see below).
However these developments pose point blank the question to the pro-Chávez left in Venezuela — will you join this charade? Up until now, groups such as the Corriente Marxista Revolucionaria, (CMR, the Revolutionary Marxist Current, linked to Socialist Appeal in Britain) and others who voted for Chávez in the election, such as the Partido Revolucion y Socialismo (PRS), have remained outside the Chávez party.
They will now be under much more pressure to sign up to the new organisation. Already the CMR has welcomed its formation, without saying whether they will join it.
For the left to join Chávez’s party would be a disaster — effectively to commit political suicide to a bourgeois force. What’s needed is an independent party of workers.
It would fight the ideological front of the class struggle, including against Chavismo. It would stand candidates in local and national elections. It would fight for the UNT trade union federation to remain independent of the government, to elect its leadership and to fight the class struggle militantly against Venezuela’s bosses and the state that props them up. It would move to occupy the factories and agitate for workers’ self-management in the industries that really matter in Venezuela, especially the oil industry. In short, it would fight for independent working class politics.
Workers at Sanitarios Maracay, a firm making bathroom suites decided at a mass meeting on 14 November after nearly two years of struggle to occupy their factory. The occupation was a response to the employer’s decision to close the plant and the refusal to pay bonuses owed.
However some managers and administrative staff at the factory announced on 4 December the formation of a union opposed to the occupation. This “union” — designed to break the occupation — is backed by Marcela Maspero, who leads the UNT faction most subordinate to Chávez.
On the other hand, on 5 December, Orlando Chirino and other more independent UNT leaders visited the factory to mediate between the workers and a group of private “Bolivarian” investors. Chirino apparently told workers that it would be very difficult to get the government to expropriate the company and that “congestion” had been a fiasco, particularly in Invepal, where the trade union organisation had been destroyed.
Although the CMR rightly pushes for nationalisation under workers’ control, it does so at the same time as sowing huge illusions in Chávez and his movement.
I’m glad Arthur thinks my articles on Latin America suffer from the AWL’s current politics, since that’s precisely what I’m trying to apply to the continent.
However I think his contributions suffer from a methodological error common to “orthodox” (post-Trotsky) Trotskyism: deciding on a particular practical or tactical line and then working back to the analysis, rather than the real Marxist approach, of saying what is (segui il tuo corso, e lascia dir le genti), and then drawing political conclusions.
* Those who argued that the key question in 1939 was defence of the USSR and therefore did not criticise the carve up of Poland, the Baltic states etc or challenge the view that Russia was a workers’ state.
* Those who argue for troops out now in Iraq, without assessing the consequences for the Iraqi labour movement – or indeed for Iraq as an entity.
* In Latin America today those who argue Cuba and Venezuela must be defended against US aggression – and therefore do not criticise these governments and dress them up as progressive, even socialist states.
I think the AWL’s approach is to state some basic truths about what’s going on in the world – and in this case in Cuba and in Venezuela, from the perspective of the working class.
In Cuba, a Stalinist ruling class has ruled since 1959, overthrowing capitalism and simultaneously suppressing all attempts by workers to organise. However after the collapse of the USSR, I’ve argued that the Cuban state is reintegrating itself into the world economy (despite the blockade) through alliances with multinational capital.
In Venezuela, I argue that Chávez is a bourgeois Bonaparte, leading a praetorian regime that balances between social classes in the aftermath of the crisis in the old system, but nevertheless rules in the interests of sections of Venezuelan national capital. Chávez has opened some space for the UNT to emerge – but the unions face a constant threat of incorporation and repression if they assert themselves. I think the basic direction is still towards state capitalism – Chávez’s recent pronouncements on nationalisation are likely to involve compensation, a continued relationship with multinational capital and the sale of oil to the US. The only obvious alternative – a closer relationship with China instead – doesn’t fundamentally alter this prognosis, though it would have serious political repercussions.
At a basic and fundamental level I deny either of these regimes are socialist, in the sense of working class self-rule. Neither Castro nor Chávez can “introduce” socialism from above, because that’s simply not the way the working class emancipates itself. (This is not an abstract norm – look at how workers actually fought for power in Russia 1917, Spain 1936, etc by creating councils or committees in opposition to the old state.)
Of course these assessments have to be constantly reviewed, updated and made more concrete. They may prove to be mistaken and require reassessment. But if the assessments are right, then I think it follows that socialists cannot in general give “critical support” to either Castro or Chávez.
But the main problem I have with Arthur’s posts is the lack of assessment of either Cuba or Venezuela. At best the comments imply Chávez is a social democrat – I view I find unconvincing given his origins, mode of governing and relationship with the labour movement.
Exactly what follows from the assessments tactically is difficult to say from London. I don’t think its possible to operate as an independent working class socialist inside Cuba at present. The situation in Venezuela is completely different, but the idea that socialists there should join Chávez’s new party does seem to me to politically to cut their own throats. The analogy with joining Labour doesn’t follow, because Chávez’s party will not be social democratic – but probably more like the old PRI in Mexico.
I don’t think my analysis merely equates Castro or Chávez with Bush – the third camp does not imply that every triangle in an equilateral. For my part, I’ve no problem defending Cuba or Venezuela’s right to self-determination, and therefore oppose US intervention. Similarly, I’m quite happy to defend nationalised property, welfare provision etc and in the case of Venezuela, further nationalisation. I think its possible to do these things, as they flow from an analysis of these states in the world economy and in world politics.
However it is not “sectarian” to characterise the situation sharply or to stand against the flow of left wing common sense. It’s actually the best thing we can do as socialists. Look at Trotsky on Spain. He told the truth as he saw it. He warned workers not to get sucked into the lesser evilism of the Republican-Stalinist government. And he was right. While rank and file anarchists and socialists built organs of workers self-rule, the Stalinist, CNT and POUM leaders betrayed them by joined the national and regional governments that would turn on them - and ultimately pave the way for Franco.
Paul claims Chavez and his party represent a "bourgeois force." I have to wonder what kind of bourgeois force it is that calls for the dismantling of the bourgeois state! And calls for a "communal state"! And invokes, yes, Trotsky!! What can the motives of this "bourgeois force" possibly be?
At the very least the Chavez phenomena exhibits notable contradictions, such as the simultaneous recent move by Chavez to increase his own personal ability to rule by decree AND, as Arthur notes, the expansion of popular power from below as expressed in the communal councils. Bonapartism and anti-Bonapartism simultaneously!
How can Paul be so certain of what the Chavez government precisely is?
In reply to How can Paul be so certain? by USRed
I'm confident, rather than dogmatically certain about the class character of Chavismo, based on:
- the fact he's administered a bourgeois state for eight years
- the fact that he's not challenged capitalist relations of production
- the personnel and political forces making up his government
- the character of his backers in Venezuela
- his international alignments
I've also tried to comment on concrete things Chávez has done, including in relation to the labour movement.
I think the proposal on Communal Councils (CC), will be worth monitoring, but the precedents (e.g. Bolivarian circles, co-management etc) are not promising: - they have been top down, government funded and controlled - no doubt with some popular participation - but not independent workers' organisations.
There is a description of the councils by pro-Chávez apologist (and Castroite) Marta Harnecker in, Green Left Weekly 6 December 2006.
“There are now 16,000 CCs, established in six months [since the start of the program this year]. It is a very serious initiative, in my opinion. The CC process requires many months to allow people to mature, and to elect true leaders. We began with a process involving motivators. The committee of motivators have to go house-to-house to make a census. This is one of the most basic jobs — a socioeconomic census. It requires the committee to visit all the households in the area.
“It seems that it needs serious and diligent leaders who are capable of going house-to-house. Because of this, we think it would not be possible to elect spokespeople for the CC without going through this process. There should be an assembly first, and then an election.
“There has to be a team, a promotions commission, who should do this social and geographic history — the story of the community. [To achieve this], it would take at least eight months. When they have the meeting of the assembly, they will elect the future spokespeople. Then the process is approved [legally]. Some of the CCs are working okay, others are not.”
She also says:
“The Communal Councils include both those who are with Chavez and those who are not. They are the community: the Communal Councils must reflect all the colours of a rainbow; must cover everyone who wants to work for the community, without political affiliations, without government associations …”
Most pertinently from out point of view, when asked “What role does the workers’ movement play in relation to community organising?”, she replied:
“Logically, we accept that in general the experience of popular power means that, as it is based on territorial spaces, the workers do not appear [directly] as active members.”
Clearly we will have to see how Communal Councils develop. But I think it’s clear from even these (sympathetic) descriptions that they are not at present in any sense embryonic centres of workers’ power.
On the issue of nationalisations I wrote about in my article, I think further reports vindicate my scepticism. Steven Mather writing on the Venezuelanalysis website yesterday quoted the following comments:
“The Finance Chairman of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Ricardo Sanguino, said last Wednesday that his government would compensate those companies that are to lose out over the nationalization plans of his government.”
“It was unclear last week whether EDC would be included in the nationalization plan because it has always been a privately held company. Rafael Ramirez, the Minister of Energy and Mines, clarified today that small shareholders in EDC would not be affected by the nationalization.”
In other words, this is not a matter of the expropriation of capital.
Chávez, like many Bonapartist figures, uses "socialist" rhetoric. Part of our job is to puncture that rhetoric, and look at what he actually does, particularly in relation to the Venezuelan working class. We should also ask what Venezuelan workers would have to do to take power - in my view they would have to overthrow Chávez and his various forms of rule.
I want to reply to your point about Iraq, Arthur, so I'm linking over to the debate about Iraq, where I do so. See here.