By Paul Hampton
Has Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, embraced socialism? Is his "Bolivarian revolution" about to grow over into a socialist revolution? Wide sections of the international left seem to think so.
In January Chavez told the World Social Forum (WSF): "Everyday I become more convinced, there is no doubt in my mind, and as many intellectuals have said, that it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can't be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice. But I'm also convinced that it is possible to do it under democracy, but not in the type of democracy being imposed from Washington."
Chavez said that Venezuela is trying to implement a "social economy".
He said: "It is impossible, within the framework of the capitalist system to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world's population. We must transcend capitalism. But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path¦ [as one] which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything."
What does Chavez mean by "socialism"? His government is promoting an economic model it calls "endogenous development", which aims at developing Venezuelan industry, to be "co-managed" by workers.
Earlier this year Chavez decreed the expropriation of Venepal paper factory. It had been closed by its owners in September 2004 but was occupied by workers. The company, renamed Invepal, is now co-managed by its workers and the state.
There are other firms that are co-managed, such as the electricity company CADAFE and the Alcasa aluminium plant. Other factories, such as the CNV engineering firm, have recently been occupied by workers demanding co-management.
The government has also stepped up its programme to redistribute land that is idle. Earlier this year more than 500 farms, including 56 large estates, classified as idle, including estates belonging to the British Vestey family, were redistributed.
And Chavez has recently enacted a house building programme and an Education Act to open up universities to the poor.
Although these reforms help some workers, their scope is modest. Since Chavez came to power more than two million hectares of land has been redistributed, but all of it belonged to the state, which is the largest single landowner in Venezuela. Vice president Jose Vicente Rangel has said farmers and ranchers with their titles in order and their lands productive have "nothing to fear".
Similarly, the factories taken over by workers and then nationalised with co-management have generally been loss-making enterprises. Chavez has shown little inclination for wholesale nationalisation and none at all for expropriating large-scale capitalist property.
Although workers have more say than before, the schemes are not about workers' control or self-management. They might end up being vehicles to supervise and control workers, along Cuban lines - which is a long way from workers' democracy.
The key to Chavez's project is the state-owned oil company PDVSA, which continues to supply the US and other markets, even if the profits from it are distributed more equally.
At best Chavez promotes a kind of populist state-capitalist development model, at odds with prevailing neo-liberalism but not ultimately against capitalist relations of production.
If Chavez has become any kind of a socialist, it is a top-down, Bonapartist, social-democratic, reformist socialist, rather than an embodiment of the working-class socialism-from-below that he appears to have embraced.
However, his regime has opened up space for working class organisations to develop.
The old union federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), has been widely discredited by the involvement of its leaders in the employers' coup in 2002 and their lock-out in 2003.
The formation of the National Union of Venezuela Workers (UNT) in May 2003 has opened up greater possibilities for independent working class action. According to Jonah Gindin, writing on the Venezuelanalysis website, the UNT has grown "astonishingly fast" in its first two years, with workers holding ballots and establishing more democratic unions in the workplace.
According to Gindin, a growing movement to democratise unions "exploded" in 2004. Although this has been helped by the Ministry of Labour's moratorium on lay-offs for lower-paid workers that began two years ago, there are other signs that the movement is genuine. The UNT signed three-quarters of all collective agreements last year, including half of those in the private sector where the CTV has traditionally been strong.
Although the UNT is generally pro-Chavez, it is also riven with factions and divisions over union democracy and the extent of its autonomy from the state.
According to Gindin, the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT) led by Orlando Chirinos is closest to the government, whereas the group led by steelworkers' leader Ramon Machuca is more autonomous.
Both the UNT and the CTV are due to hold elections this year, which will provide a better indication of the balance of forces. Socialists should welcome the opening up of the Venezuelan labour movement, without prettifying Chavez or his government in the process.
For more information, the best site in English about what is happening in Venezuela is www.venezuelanalysis.com.