National Sections of the L5I:

Hugo Chavez : leading a socialist revolution?

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We live in a period of great mass movements against neoliberalism and imperialism. In the past 10 years, millions of activists across the world have assembled to discuss building resistance to neoliberal globalisation - in both its economic and military forms. Conferences such as the World and European Social Forums have witnessed a ferment of political discussion on how the movements can move from resistance to victory.

The role of politics and, specifically, political parties has always been a point of controversy. In the opening period of the movement, between the late 1990s and 2001-02, there was a discernable revival of anarchist and libertarian ideology, expressed in the rise of movements, such as People's Global Action and Reclaim the Streets, and the popularity of literature, such as John Holloway’s How to Change the World Without Taking Power.

The coming to power of Lula and a series of similar leftist presidents across Latin America, and discussion around the need for alternative left parties has brought the question of political power back into the movements, reflecting the simple fact, rejected by the likes of Holloway, that the possessor of political power will be vital to realising the movements’ full gamut of demands.

This process expresses the recomposition of the working class movement and the demands of radicalised masses for macro level changes to political and economic policy, away from the dominance of neoliberalism. At the same time, as we have highlighted in Fifth International (volume 2, issue 1), the process is highly contradictory as the reformist governments, in their social democratic and populist variants, have, on the whole, acquiesced to the neoliberal demands of finance and monopoly capital.

What is remarkable about the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, is that he appears to buck this trend. Far from moving to the right while in government, Chavez's proclamations over his nine years in power have become ever more bold and radical - and his large scale social programmes have made real inroads into the poverty suffered by the great majority of Venezuelan people.

In the social forums too, Chávez has challenged the notion that the movements must not address the question of political power. When he addressed some 20,000 enthusiastic supporters at the World Social Forum in 2005, he boldly declared that the movement must have a “strategy of power”. Taking such a position was an open riposte to the leadership of the World Social Forum, which has fiercely defended the conception that the forum was an “open space” rather than a “locus of power”.

His social programmes have attracted the fury of the Venezuelan ruling class and imperialist Washington. They have twice tried to unseat him, first, in a classical Latin American military coup in 2001 and, second, by trying to force his recall through a referendum. On both occasions, Chávez had to rely on the masses of Venezuelan workers and poor - mobilised first on the streets then at the polls - to maintain his power. Despite the powerful opposition mobilised against him, he is now one of the longest serving democratically elected presidents in Latin America.

In December 2006, after his latest landslide election victory, with 62.87 per cent of the poll and 7,267,000 votes, Chávez announced a further left turn, which he described as a deepening of the “socialist revolution” in Venezuela: “I said that 3 December was not a point of arrival, but a point of departure, and it is a point of departure. Today a new epoch begins... The main central idea is the deepening, widening and extending of the socialist revolution.”1

This bold declaration marks a sea change in Chávez’ politics since he came to power in 1998. Then, his programme did not transcend radical bourgeois nationalism. They were focused on an end to the corrupt two party, patronage system and a new republican constitution, very much influenced by the ideas of the pan-Latin American nationalist Simon Bolivar.

His proclamations following the December election victory seem to mark a new and important development. They include proposals to: i) bring amendments to his own constitution in order to explicitly establish Venezuela as a “socialist republic”, ii) bring about the “abolition of the bourgeois state” and the creation of, what he termed, a “municipal state”, iii) carry out a wave of nationalisations - “all that was privatised, let it be nationalised” he said. He quoted not only the ideas of Marx and Lenin but also said, “I’m very much of Trotsky’s line - the permanent revolution.”2

Clearly, the events in Venezuela are of enormous significance to anti-capitalists and radicals the world over. His meteoric rise to power and radical programme pose fundamental questions in understanding and characterising the nature of the socialist revolution in the 21st century. In particular, it poses not only the question of whether it is possible for the states of the global south to choose a different economic road to neoliberalism, within the context of the continued operation of the capitalist market, but also whether the classical Marxist assumption that there is no parliamentary road to socialism remains true.

The purpose of this article is to make a systematic analysis and interrogation of the politics of Hugo Chávez and their relationship to the global class struggle and political-economic developments. This will involve surveying the following themes and issues:

• The political origins of Hugo Chávez and the context in which he rose to power
• Chávez’ radicalisation and the pressure of the masses
• Trotsky’s conception of left Bonapartism as a framework for understanding Chávez and his relationship to the masses
• Whether the Chávez reform programme has challenged, or will challenge capitalism
• The Venezuelan working class, the Bolivarian movement and the left oppositionists to Chávez
• Chávez’s programme for the third term, including his, so called, “five motors of the revolutionary process”
• The stance that revolutionary communists should take towards Chávez and his movement.

The Venezuelan capitalist class is one of the most parasitic and oligarchic in Latin America. It is based on the big landowners and the creation of an indigenous industry out of enormous revenues accruing from country’s vast oil wealth. Venezuela is the fifth largest oil exporter in the world and the fourth largest supplier to the United States, in 2004 accounting for 11.4 per cent of the latter’s imports. Moreover, Venezuela has large reserves, much larger than those of the United States (77.8 billion barrels as against 22 billion barrels). In addition, it has, in the Orinoco Belt, an estimated 260 billion barrels of heavy crude.3 Venezuelan oil will become more and more important to the USA in the coming decades and, were the crisis in the Middle East to interrupt supplies from the region, the situation could become even more critical for the US economy. Thus, relations between Venezuela and the United States have dominated domestic politics in the country.

For decades the top managers of the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela Sociedad Aná³nima (PdVSA) ran it as “a state within a state”, enriching themselves and forming a privileged élite. All this was possible in the post-war boom years, and lasted into the 1970s when oil prices quadrupled as a result of the Middle East crisis of 1973. Oil revenues were used to apply the import substitution economic model, favoured by most third world countries at this time, which sought to develop domestic presence across industrial sectors in manufacturing, rather than depend on imported goods. Part of the oil wealth flowed, via high wages for skilled workers, into sustaining a genuine aristocracy of labour.4

For most of the first half of the 20th century Venezuela was ruled by military presidents, many of whom were outright dictators. There were a few short democratic interludes, such as that of Rá³mulo Betancourt’s presidency in 1945-48, but in 1958 a mass popular uprising drove the last military ruler from power. The main bourgeois parties benefited from the departure of the military. There was Betancourt’s Accion Democratica, often called a social democratic party and indeed it was and is a member of the Socialist International. In fact it was a party of the liberal bourgeoisie5, like most of the Socialist International’s parties in Latin America. There was also the Christian Democratic Party, called Copei, plus a smaller party, Union Republicana Democratica.

Their agreement, known as the Punto Fijo Pact, ensured alternation between the two main parties for nearly four decades. The Venezuelan trade union movement, the Confederacián de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), dominated by a core of skilled oil workers, was firmly linked to Accion Democratica through its powerful bureaucracy. Puntofijismo allowed the country’s élite and its labour lieutenants to engage in corruption and nepotism on a grand scale. It excluded any real expression of the social needs of the mass of the working class and the growing numbers of the urban poor.

However, in the 1980s, when oil prices fell, Venezuela, like much of the global south, found itself in deep economic trouble - albeit, its relative prosperity meant the crisis did not hit until 1983. In this year, President Luis Herrera Campins devalued the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, an act that symbolised the end of an era. The Venezuelan economy went into a sharp decline, causing a huge increase in unemployment, the mushrooming of the barrios (semi-permanent shanty towns around the outskirts of the cities) and the growth of the informal economy, which even today employs a staggering 50 per cent of the Venezuelan workforce.

In 1987, an IMF mission to Venezuela developed, in collaboration with the government of President Carlos Andres Perez of Accion Democratica, a structural adjustment programme, typical in its neoliberal economic orthodoxy to those introduced across the global south in the 1980s and since. It involved i) strict restrictions on public expenditure and wage levels, ii) a floating exchange rate, iii) trade liberalisation, iv) an end to states subsidies of some basic commodities and v) the introduction of sales tax. In short, it meant a dramatic end to the import substitution economic model and a shift to neoliberalism. A hike in fuel prices led to a massive increase in the price of transport and consumer goods.

The result was one of the first mass rebellions against the IMF - El Caracazo - in 1989. The Caracas rebellion quickly spread throughout Venezuela, so quickly that the left political groups or sympathetic sections of the army had little time to become involved. Within two days, the state responded with brutal repression, killing anywhere between 300 and 3,000 people.6 Many of the bodies were buried in mass graves. While the rebellion did not stop Perez’ policies, it mortally discredited the two main parties and the whole Punto Fijo system. Perez was impeached and removed from office in 1993.

The repression sickened sections of the army officer corps, shamed by their own role in it. Among them was Hugo Chávez, a colonel in a parachute regiment. He had already founded a clandestine military organisation the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR 200) on 24 July 1983. This date was chosen with deliberate symbolism: the bicentenary of the birth of Simon Bolivar - a historic leader of the anti-colonial independence movements across Latin America, and popularly known as “the liberator”. Bolivar both admired the American Revolution of 1776-82 and feared the domination of the rest of the Americas by the expanding northern republic. He foresaw the danger that it would dominate a divided Latin America and therefore advocated its unification in a federation, modeled on the USA. His political ideals reflected the radical capitalist liberalism prevalent at this time. Chávez and his companions interpreted Bolivar as an apostle of anti-imperialism and resistance to the USA.

Other influences on the young Chávez included Douglas Bravo, the veteran leader of a guerrilla campaign initiated by the Venezuelan Communist Party (CP) that lasted from the early 1960s to the mid 1970s and the Venezuelan Marxist historian and CP member Federico Brito Figueroa. Naturally, the examples of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara also played an important part in his political upbringing and coloured his “anti-imperialist” and later “socialist” interpretation of the ideas of Simon Bolivar. These interpretations were anachronistic and historically inaccurate but Chávez was looking for popular heroes. Indeed, it is a feature of his politics that he has always been willing to add new heroes to his pantheon with little concern for coherence or consistency.

His motivation in the 1980s centred on the aspiration to make Venezuela independent of US imperialism, to realise the dream of a united Latin America, to tackle social inequality and poverty by a fair distribution of the country’s oil wealth and to wipe out the corruption and nepotism of the élite. Like many other young officers from a plebeian background - his parents were teachers of mixed indigenous, African and Spanish descent. He thus experienced first hand the arrogance of the “white” élite and the painful subordination, political, economic and cultural, of the country to the North American colossus. His course of action was to join together with other similar young officers, first to discuss the cause of his country’s servitude, and then to decide what could be done to end it.

Looking back at this time some years later, Chávez said: “We had the audacity to found a movement within the ranks of the army of Venezuela. We were tired of the corruption, and we swore to dedicate our lives to the creation of a revolutionary movement and to the revolutionary struggle in Venezuela, straight away, within Latin America.”7

The MBR 200 represents a wing of the officer corps which was from lower middle class, working class and indigenous backgrounds. It was radical nationalist and populist in its political outlook. Tired of the humiliation inflicted on their country by the imperialists in the IMF, they launched a coup attempt against Perez in 1992 that failed. Chávez commanded the loyalty of only 10 per cent of the armed forces and bad co-ordination led to isolation and defeat. Chávez surrendered, but was allowed to give a television broadcast, aimed at the areas outside Caracas where the coup had been successful in which he said: “Comrades: unfortunately, for the moment, the objectives that we had set for ourselves have not been achieved in the capital. That’s to say that those of us here in Caracas have not been able to seize power. Where you are, you have performed well, but now is the time for a rethink; new possibilities will arise again, and the country will be able to move definitively towards a better future.”8

The phrase “for the moment” signalled to his followers to wait and prepare for a later date. The failed coup and the broadcast made Chávez into a national figure, already something of a hero to those suffering under Perez’ austerity.

Chávez was released from prison two years later, under amnesty from the new President. While he had failed to achieve his main aim, he had accomplished something else. The rule of the two main parties was totally undermined. The masses came out in 1993 to vote for a new President, Rafael Caldera, who had split from Copei, to form a new party, Convergence, earlier in the year. His election at the head of a coalition of small left-of-centre parties ended two-party rule. The fact that he was elected on a demagogically anti-neoliberal programme but within two years had dumped it and continued with the IMF policies created the “future opportunity” that Chávez had been waiting for.

Chávez and the MBR 200 created a mass movement, based on a network of local grassroots organisations, called the Bolivarian circles, which convened mass meetings in the barrios, campaigned for improvements in daily life and announced a fight for the presidency in the 1998 elections. Just before the elections Chávez transformed the MBR 200 into the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR). His programme was designed to sweep aside the Punti Fijo system, the corrupt “rule of the parties” to appeal to the people against the political élite and the rich, using the full vocabulary of Latin American populism. He combined this with an insistence that his presidency was there to introduce a new kind of democracy for the people. The way to do this was to summon a Constitutional Assembly and for the people’s representatives to draw up a new constitution to banish graft and corruption, to put the country’s income from its mineral wealth at the service of the poor and deprived, to stand up to the bullying world policeman, the USA, and its instrument, the IMF. In short, he proposed to give ordinary Venezuelans back their self-respect. Chávez called all this the “Bolivarian revolution” and denied that it was a socialist revolution. His stunning victory in 1998 with 56 per cent of the vote, drawn from the poorest sections of society, indicated the hope and expectations this programme aroused.

Washington eyed Chávez’ landslide election victory with undisguised hostility. However, his first years in power were not aimed so much at US imperialism as at breaking the constitutional bastions of Puntofijismo. A new Bolivarian constitution was created during a year-long debate in the Constitutional Assembly. The new constitution was adopted towards the end of 1999 and formed the basis for the Chávez government’s political programme. The constitution went to great lengths to express the social rights of the people, and gave many ways of consulting them through referendums. It placed nearly all executive power and legislative initiative in the hands of the president.

In December 1999, the new constitution was approved by 71.8 per cent of the popular vote. In July 2000, Chávez was re-elected with 60 per cent of the national vote.

Chávez assembled around him a series of advisers drawn from the Bolivarian movement in the army and the social movements represented in the MVR. Among Chávez’ first acts was the clearing out of sections of the old bureaucracy from the state oil company PdVSA and reforms to the legal system and judiciary. A large number of judges were dismissed for corruption.

The capitalist class kept relatively quiet until 2001 when Chávez’ “49 decrees” were published. These called a halt to privatisations, initiated a limited land reform programme and announced greater use of PdVSA revenues for social policies in favour of the poor. This was enough to cause howls of protests from the bosses and landowners. It also led to a split in the Bolivarian movement, with the more bourgeois sections going over to the opposition, claiming that the decrees went too far, including one of Chávez’ key advisers, Luis Miquilena.

In 2002, Chávez’ attempts to reform PdVSA, putting it directly under government control, resulted in massive resistance from managers and the trade union bureaucracy. On 9 April, Chávez dismissed seven key PdVSA executives. The private media, the middle class parties and the CTV immediately rallied to their side. The next day the CTV called a general strike. Two huge competing demonstrations, one with a middle class and labour aristocratic social composition, the other consisting largely of the urban poor, mobilised in the centre of Caracas. The private media claimed that shots were fired at the anti-Chávez demonstrators, killing some of them. They blamed this on Chávez and his supporters and he rightly denounced it as an organised provocation. This was to be later confirmed by amateur video footage, which showed the shots came first from the anti-Chávez demonstration.

Lucas Romero, commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan armed forces, announced in a broadcast that Chávez had submitted to him his resignation. Chávez was brought to a military base and held incommunicado. The army leaders appointed Pedro Carmona, the president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecameras) as president. His first decree proclaimed all of Chávez’ major social and economic reforms null and void, and dissolved the National Assembly and the entire judiciary, in front of jubilant rally of his bourgeois and middle class supporters. A more inept move can scarcely be imagined. It is no surprise that Carmona’s presidency lasted just less than 48 hours.

Chávez’ ousting and Carmona’s decrees provoked mass pro-Chávez uprisings across the country and especially in Caracas. Junior officers and rank and file soldiers loyal to Chávez called for massive popular support for a counter-coup. The MVR and the Bolivarian circles were able to mobilise the masses on the streets, producing huge demonstrations. This quickly fractured the coup-plotters’ coalition and split the army massively in favour of Chávez, with the majority enthusiastically rallying to him. These soldiers retook the presidential palace from Carmona’s clique and released Chávez from captivity, almost without resistance. By 13 April, Chávez was back in power and his enemies further discredited and disarmed.

During the abortive coup 19 Latin American countries declared their opposition to it. But Washington, clearly behind the whole escapade, had immediately recognised Car-mona. Although several military officers were brought before a tribunal, most of the key players in the 2002 coup were quietly retired. Those who had proved loyal to Chávez received promotions.

However, the ruling class was not yet completely cowed. In late 2002 the bosses launched a lockout in the oil industry, misnamed a strike, which crippled the Venezuela economy and threw many thousands into unemployment and poverty. The media, mainly owned by the rich élite in Venezuela, began denouncing Chávez as a dictator who was hell bent on destroying the economy.9 Chávez retaliated by firing many of the old managers and also 18,000 PdVSA employees from the middle management and skilled technicians who had supported the lockout.

Many of the blue-collar workers organised against the lockout and carried on working as best they could in various branches of the PdVSA. Mass mobilisations took place in support of Chávez and workers occupied other factories closed by bosses also supporting the lockout. In the end the lockout was defeated and Fedecamaras failed to break the majority of the people from support for the Bolivarian revolution.

The corrupt and privileged layer of pro-boss bureaucrats who formed the leadership of the CTV supported both the coup and the lockout. Pro-Chavista and anticapitalist sections of the trade union movement decamped and set up a new organisation, the National Union Of Workers, UNT, which rapidly grew to become the dominant federation in the country.

In 2004, the capitalists tried once again to unseat Chávez using the mechanism of a recall referendum (ironically brought in under the constitution of the Fifth Republic), which Chávez won, with 59 per cent voting “No” to the recall.

The desire of sections of the international capitalist class to oust Chávez can be found in many major publications. For instance, the Economist has called for regime change.10 There have been repeated calls for intervention into Venezuela by various Washington neoconservatives, and attempts at destabilising Chávez’ rule by organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the American Center for International Labour Solidarity, which is linked to the CTV.11 All of this demonstrates that the imperialists and their agents in the capitalist élites of Latin America have not changed their spots since the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile, that the imperialists fear even the most limited and compensated nationalisations and land reforms from Latin American governments and will do all in their power to topple them.

The mass mobilisation that rescued Chávez led to a radicalisation of the workers and poor; they themselves had acted; they themselves had stopped the coup, along with junior officers and rank and file soldiers. They had done so when Chávez was helpless. This activation of his social base in turn has pushed Chávez further to the left. His position made him realise that his survival was now bound up with providing the reforms the masses needed and delivering them via the Bolivarian circles and the missiones, the special bodies charged with delivering education, health and land reform.12

Chávez was forced to rely ever more directly on the masses, to organise them and, in a limited way, to arm them too. Chávez first announced the creation of civilian militias in April 2005 and in March of 2006 a major training programme for around two million reservists was started. The arming of large sections of the people is obviously a major development in Venezuela and the distribution of guns to the people implies a massive escalation in the revolutionary struggle.

However, this arming is done strictly through the Bolivarian circles; the weapons are controlled by the MVR and the militia is under the direct control of Chávez himself. He has justified forming this militia by the danger of foreign intervention and counter-revolutionary action by right wing reactionaries. But, as long as it is not a democratic body, electing its own officers, controlling its own arsenals, what happens if the army successfully arrests its commander-in-chief again, what if he is assassinated? What if Chávez himself tries to use the militia against his left critics? This is a possibility that workers must be wary of and avoid by demanding its democratisation, its expansion, its organisation not only in the barrios but also, crucially, in the workplaces.

As Chávez’ base of support shifted from the army to the dispossessed with the various mobilisations needed to defend him from the right, he has been obliged to carry out ever more serious measures to eradicate poverty and illiteracy.

As we have seen, Chávez regime is an expression of great social pressures, on the one hand those of imperialism and the bosses who want him out and, on the other, the urban poor, peasants and working class who have kept him in power. Using the constitutional powers of the presidency, his control of a purged army and a mobilised and organised mass movement, Chávez has acquired quite exceptional power.

In Marxist terms, this “strongman regime” is called Bonapartism. It was first described by Karl Marx in his book The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which he described how in times of increasing class struggle a leader can arise who apparently sets himself above the antagonistic classes and becomes a “man of destiny” - who seizes hold of the state, often basing his support on the army and on the peasantry, which makes up the majority of its soldiers. Louis Bonaparte was the nephew of Napoleon and came to power in France after the revolutions of 1848-49.

The workers fought on the barricades in February 1848 but the bourgeoisie took power, albeit introducing a democratic republic to replace the monarchy. However, the class struggles of the workers did not abate and, following a failed workers’ uprising in June, 1848, the Republic revealed itself as a brutal dictatorship over the workers. Within a year the bourgeois republicans were discredited. To avoid a working class uprising or a crushing defeat for it at the next elections the top layers of the bourgeoisie called on Louis Napoleon to stand for election on an apparently pro-worker, anti-bourgeois programme. Once elected he then carried out a coup d’état against the Republic and made himself Emperor.

Marx analysed this as a situation where the bourgeois state has been taken out of direct control of the parties and normal political élites of the capitalist class. Nevertheless, the purpose of Bonapartism is to save the social rule of the bourgeoisie, the ownership and control of industry, the banks, and the land at the price of sacking its politicians. Such Bonapartism is generally a form of the counter-revolution, designed either to prevent, short-circuit a developing revolution, or to put an end to a revolutionary period where the working class has proved unable to seize power and resolve the social crisis. This is true both in the imperialist countries and in the semi-colonial world. Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile is a good example. However, conversely, there are examples in the semi-colonial world where a “man of destiny” appears who does not represent the crushing of the masses or the end of revolutionary developments but on the contrary seems to embody them; leaders who rely on both the army and major sections of the workers and peasants and who attack the bourgeois and landowning élite and imperialism.

Trotsky encountered this form of Bonapartism in Latin America when he was exiled to Mexico in January 1937. This was the period when Lázaro Cárdenas was president (1934-40). Indeed Cárdenas was the only world leader willing to grant the leader of the Russian revolution asylum. He was engaged in a struggle against the North American and British exploiters of Mexico. Cárdenas nationalised the railway system and the Mexican oil industry, then in British and American hands, and faced down a trade boycott and sabotage from the imperialists. He also carried out a substantial land reform, which boosted the peasant villages, the ejidos, with communal landownership. They rose from accounting for about 3 per cent of the total land of Mexico to more than 20 per cent. Nevertheless, the vast majority of land remained in large estates or haciendas. As well as the army he relied for political support on and encouraged the growth of the trade union movement and peasant organisations. Cárdenas purged and reformed the trade unions, ousting supporters of the old élite and putting Stalinists like Lombardo Toledano in control. Cárdenas also encouraged the revival of indigenous peoples’ cultures and supported the work of the muralists, Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco.

Trotsky was interested in the experience of Cárdenas and his nationalistic resistance to the British and American imperialists. This was because of the specific nature of Latin America, with its working class in an early but militant stage of self-organisation, its impoverished but rebellious peasantry and its weak bourgeoisie who were almost entirely subordinated to foreign capital. Trotsky outlined how the rulers of these states can take on a particularly distinctive character. He developed the concept of Bonapartism sui generis:

“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character sui generis - of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by manoeuvring with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists.”13

Trotsky goes on to say that the Bonapartist state can even place responsibility for running nationalised enterprises on the working class itself. The relationship between the state and the working class takes on a new dynamic, as the progressive demands of the workers and peasants, the support of which left Bonapartist leaders needs to survive, is in part enacted, in part controlled and limited through the state, for example, through plebiscitary referendums. The state can implement such measures, as a result of the demands of the people, but these are always limited by the boundaries of private property.

So what attitude do revolutionaries take to limited progressive measures that the left Bonapartist implements? Writing in 1938 of the expropriation of Mexican oil from the imperialist companies Trotsky said: “Without succumbing to illusions and without fear of slander, the advanced workers will completely support the Mexican people in their struggle against the imperialists. The exp ropriation of oil is neither socialism nor communism. But it is a highly progressive measure of national self-defence.”14

Trotsky goes on to warn that this does not mean sowing the illusions that such measures somehow had a socialist character, let alone the regime itself: “The international proletariat has no reason to identify its programme with the programme of the Mexican government. Revolutionists have no need of changing colour, adapting themselves, and rendering flattery in the manner of the GPU school of courtiers, who in a moment of danger will sell out and betray the weaker side.”15

Trotsky stresses that, although workers should support the progressive actions of expropriation carried out by the national government, they must never support the bourgeois state’s rule over itself, even in the person of a populist or “socialist” Bonaparte. The maintenance of complete class independence is of primary political importance, especially in the face of populist and left-leaning leaders.

In Latin America, this form of left Bonapartism we have outlined almost invariably will take the form of populism. Michael Lá¶wy, a theorist of the Fourth International, in his essay Populism, Nationalism and Class Independence in Latin America, provides an apt definition of populism:

“Populism is a political movement - expressed in diverse organisational forms (party, trade union, various associations, etc.) - under a bourgeois/petit-bourgeois leadership and the charismatic leadership of caudillo. Once in power, this movement, which claims to represent ‘the people’ in its entirety, follows a Bonapartist political line, supposedly above class divisions, but which in the final analysis represents the interests of capital... It can also - particularly if there is pressure from below - make social and economic concessions to the exploited classes and/or take certain economic measures of an anti-imperialist type.”16

Populism is a strong political ideological trend in Latin America, rooted in the traditions of Lazaro Cárdenas in Mexico, Getáºlio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Perá³n in Argentina, Haya de la Torre in Peru, Vá­ctor Paz Estenssoro in Bolivia and many others. The specific nature of most Latin American countries, op-pressed and exploited by the USA but still possessing a large peasantry and militant working class population, leads to a tendency towards populism and Bonapartism right across the continent. Left bonapartism has a populist character because the militancy of the working class must be politically dissolved into, and subordinated to a general national resistance to imperialism, involving sections of the middle classes, peasantry, the state functionaries and even patriotic capitalists (those who wish to avoid or suppress competition from the multinational corporations).

Populism appeals to sections of the ruling class and the middle class who seek to control the popular masses, especially the peasantry and the working class, in an attempt to deflect the development of class consciousness.

Thus populism oscillates between being anti-imperialist and anti-communist in its rhetoric and politics, because it operates between these two poles. Its policies often present a left face while always seeking to subvert and atomise any genuine class-consciousness from the workers’ movement (that is to say communist consciousness). The Bona-partist populist state seeks to prevent independent working class initiative, by using concessions from the state, in doing so diverting extra parliamentary action by radicalised sections of the urban poor into safer conduits. In Venezuela this takes the form of state approved nationalisations of bankrupt companies and state-worker co-management of factories operating under workers control.

It is within this Marxist theoretical framework that we can analyse the actions of the Chávista government and the Bolivarian revolution. In addressing Chávez’ role as a left Bonapartist, two mistakes could be made by Marxists. The first would be to write off the revolutionary struggles in Venezuela because of the dominant influence over the struggling masses by radical petit-bourgeois programme of Chávez and the MVR. The second mistake would be to confuse the left programme of Chávez with the revolutionary struggle itself.

It is vital to understand the programme as a reflection of the actions of the working class but also a distorted reflection: one which places limits on the struggles and diverts them away from a truly emancipatory goal, i.e. the socialisation of production. The struggles - for land, for jobs, for control of production, for economic development to eliminate poverty, for independence from the US empire - all have to be energetically supported, while the left populist programme has to be criticised, fought and replaced. This is the task we will turn to in the second half of this article.

The second half of Chávez’ presidency has seen a number of nationalisations of factories by the state, under pressure from the workers themselves. This has taken two forms: the generation of state-worker co-operatives and co-management of state owned enterprises. The origin of this process was the lockout staged by the Venezuelan capitalists in 2002-03.

When the lockout was defeated, the bosses continued their class war on a guerrilla basis, factory by factory, making the workers pay for the costs of the lockout by not paying wages or delaying payment. Some factories even went as far as to declare bankruptcy, some of which were genuine, but more often as part of continued economic warfare designed to destabilise the Chávez regime. Indeed, “bankruptcy”, i.e. asset stripping, sacking workers and moving capital, had become a major tactic for much of the Venezuelan capitalist class.

The occupation of factories is one of the key developments of the Venezuelan revolution. Through it workers learn how to manage their own factory and exert their power against that of the bosses. The struggle can also provide a school for socialism, with workers learning how to run industry and debating the way forward for society as a whole. The factory committee can provide a political and organisational centre for workers and make links with other factories. But it can also take the working class down the road of managing capitalism. Everything depends on the political direction it takes. This can be seen from a number of examples.

One of the most well known takeovers is the paper manufacturer Venepal (now known as Invepal). The company went bankrupt putting 900 workers out of work. After a 77-week occupation and a long legal fight the government took over the company with the state having 51 per cent of the shares and the rest going to the workforce; a workplace assembly makes decisions about the company.

Workers at the plant were persuaded by their leadership to give up union membership with the argument that now it was unnecessary since they were represented by a co-operative. Profits or benefits go to individual workers as opposed to being put back into the national plan. The leadership of the plant was recalled in a mass meeting in November 2005 by 260 votes to 20 and a new leadership was elected. But this democratic decision by a mass assembly was not recognised by the Ministry of Popular Economy, which also demands a majority say on the management board because “the state owns 51 per cent”. This just shows the dangers of this type of “co-management”.

The example of Venepal put workers’ control back on the political agenda with numerous occupations and demands for nationalisation throughout the country. It gained support from Chávez himself.

By contrast, at the state electricity company, Cadafe workers have two representatives on the five person co-ordinating committee, which can only recommend action. Workers at the plant, including members of Fetraleac (a union federation which co-ordinates power workers), have demonstrated about the lack of workers’ involvement in running the plant.

Another takeover occurred at the aluminium company Alcasa, which had been losing money for years, where a similar split between workers and state ownership has taken place. The 2,700 workers now elect their own managers - Carlos Lanz, a former guerrilla, now heads the company. In less than a year productivity has increased by 10 per cent.

Rafael Rodriguez, who is in charge of economic development in the government, highlights the differences between Alcasa and the tradition of social democratic co-management in Germany. For him co-management is a transition towards self-management and building socialism in a “practical manner”. The plant also provides schools, healthcare and weapons training.

Lanz gave an interview to International Viewpoint in 2005, in which he described a system of prevalent democracy inside the factory, but also affirmed that all important decisions, or conflicts were settled by the state.

He went on to explain what the government’s political motivation was behind this co-management programme. He described the politics of the co-management project at Alcasa, as being based upon the “peaceful construction of socialism” and continued:

“As Marxists and Gramscians we want to construct a counter-hegemony. For that we have set up a centre for socio-political training, so that the workers are involved in the process. We have been called every kind of name, Communist catechism and so on. But little by little the workers have become involved in this training and several hundred now attend. Now, according to the subject, it’s increasingly the workers themselves who provide the training.”

When asked what the situation was surrounding ownership at the factory he said the following: “It remains state-owned. We are not for the kind of co-management that distributes capital to the workers, or associates the workers with capital, or divides the shares among them. And in Venezuela the problem is not really that of private ownership. The state already possesses the essentials in this country: the majority of land, oil, the biggest companies... It is more a problem of the redistribution and restructuring of the state in a socialist sense. That’s why we do not conceive of co-management as being confined to the company; for us it should extend to the entire social environment and to all the problems including the military question. But on this level we should say that we have not advanced very much.”

These extracts show starkly both the ideological and economic-political weaknesses of the Bolivarian reform programme. The writings of Gramsci on hegemony and counter-hegemony have typically been used in the past 20 to 30 years by reformists and postmodernists to emphasise the need to construct a new hegemony in the form of political and social participation, rather than through working class expropriation of the means of production.17

Lanz draws on these reformist premises to make the confused argument that it is not necessary to adopt full workers’ control, let alone management, as the state is the main actor, before conceding they have “not advanced very much” on the democratisation of the state. What Lanz tiptoes around are the questions of the class character of the state and the relationship between the factories (co-operatives or co-managed) and the rest of the market economy. In the absence of working class popular control of the state, in the form of soviets, and the continued existence of the market economy, the reforms have a state capitalist character.

These factors combine to make impossible the generation of an efficient, national plan of production and, indeed, there have been stories of woeful inefficiency. For instance, at one of the co-managed enterprises the state buys all its t-shirts to maintain production. This wastefulness is arguably analogous to the production process in the Soviet Union, where the bureaucratised plan and lack of democracy made it very difficult for planners to determine what goods were needed and what were not, leading to the generation of the famous “shoe mountains”.

In any case, the factory occupations and nationalisations have, thus far, played a very limited and confined role within the “Bolivarian Revolution”. Chávez announced in 2005 that 700 enterprises in the country were lying idle and would potentially be taken over either through co-management nationalisations or co-operatives. However, at this time at least, he still held out an olive branch to the capitalists, offering them help if their economic difficulties were shown to be genuine and, of these 700 companies, only a handful have been taken over by the state.18

In 2006 the Revolutionary Front of Occupied Factories was set up, arising out of a conference that brought together examples of occupations and workers’ control throughout Latin America. The front’s main aim is the “extension of expropriation and nationalisation of Venezuelan industry under workers’ control”. But obstruction by state officials also shows that whatever Chávez has said about workers running factories there is still much opposition to the idea within the Bolivarian movement and the Labour Ministry. Also, some of the leading proponents of workers’ control are themselves unclear about what it means and how it should represent a break from the capitalist market.


This method of state intervention to stimulate unproductive or struggling sectors of the economy has also been applied to Chávez’ land reform programme. Here too, Chávez’ programme is limited to the taking over of under-utilised land, in other words privately owned land that is fallow, and therefore its “expropriation” will not challenge the profits of its owners. Peasants were encouraged by legislation passed in 2005 to begin to occupy lands and demand the government hand them over to the people. Local judges and police chiefs, who drove peasants back off the land, frustrated these efforts. One large ranch, nationalised in 2005, belonged to Lord Vestey, Britain’s 56th richest person who holds land across South America, and this caused a storm. However, since then few large landowners have been touched. In fact, there is even a pro-Chávez landowners and farmers association, which backs his attempts to repopulate the interior.

It is the social programmes of the regime, rather than the hitherto limited nationalisations, that have excited the masses across Latin America, and led to the rapturous reception he has received at World Social Forums. This should come as no surprise in a continent that has suffered 20 years of neoliberalism and has huge levels of poverty and there can be no doubt that these programmes are impressive.

Since 2003, Chávez has invested millions of dollars in the misiá³nes and other social projects that combat illiteracy and poor health. The provision of free healthcare in Venezuela now reaches about 54 per cent of the poorest people. The improvements in peoples’ standard of living are an important victory that has been gained under Chávez and the MVR. In other areas the social programme still has someway to go, for instance it has not tackled the huge numbers of people working in the precarious informal sector and it has built only half the projected 120,000 new houses.

Misiá³n Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighbourhood) was inaugurated in March 2003 in one impoverished barrio of the Venezuelan capital, and then expanded rapidly throughout the country. More than 15,000 Cuban doctors, medical specialists, dentists, and even sports trainers were employed in new local clinics and are paid $250 per month, far less than the salaries private doctors earn. It is however more than their pay would be in Cuba. The government now claims that 18 million people, nearly 70 per cent of the population, are being treated in these clinics. Since this time, over the past three years, stages two, three and four of the Misiá³n have set up intermediate level diagnostic centres begun to build new hospitals.

This enormous work was done alongside, not as part of the existing public and private healthcare systems. This applies to all the misiá³nes, which were set up as a separate state within a state, run by MVR members and Bolivarian circle activists, with major input from the army. They serve a dual purpose, which is to not only provide the immediate reforms that the people demand, but also to serve as a way of increasing Chávez’ influence over the impoverished masses.

The contradiction in this social programme is that it has not been achieved through a transformation of the state, which would have required purges of corrupt officials, but rather by leaving it intact and setting up alongside it the misiá³nes. The bourgeois state has often, as with the land reforms, Misiá³n Zamora, stepped in to try to thwart the activity of these Bolivarian circles.

In other areas the social programme still has someway to go, for instance it has not tackled the huge numbers of people working in the precarious informal sector and it has built only half the projected 120,000 new houses.

The misiá³nes are also entirely dependent on Venezuela’s huge oil wealth. In 2004 alone, the profits from this sector brought in about $25 billion. Venezuela provides Cuba with 53,000 barrels of below-market-rate oil a day in exchange for the service of thousands of physicians, teachers, sports trainers, and other skilled professionals. The income from oil not only provides the material basis for the social programme, but also subsidises much of the rest of the economy, such as the nationalised factories, many of which suffer from low productivity and would not be viable enterprises without state help.

The importance of oil reflects the simple fact that Venezuela remains locked tightly into the global economy - with all its contradictions. One irony of this is the close economic relationship it maintains with the United States. For all the diplomatic and political tension between Washington and Caracas since 1998, trade with the United States remains larger than that with any other state and includes significant US agricultural and manufactured commodity imports, as well as Venezuelan oil exports. Indeed, in 2006 Venezuelan imports of US goods were valued at a new high of some $6.4 billion dollars. However, thanks predominantly to oil export, Venezuela still runs a trade surplus with the States of some $26.4 billion dollars. This trade accounted for some 55 per cent of exports and 33 per cent imports in 2005.19

The dependency of the programme on the market value of one resource should act as a warning to all those globally that belief that the Chávez programme offers an alternative to the prevalent neoliberal economic model.

This analysis of the economic programme of the Chávez regime reveals its deep national and global class contradictions. As the conflicts over the land occupation affirm, the capitalists and the landowners still have a bourgeois state and army which recognises and where necessary enforces their property rights. Moreover, the state may be a central actor in the economy, particularly through its role in the oil industry, but it does not work to suppress the operation of core elements of capitalism, such as commodity production, profit, law of value, wage inequalities, private property and money. On the contrary, its economic power is provided materially through the export of a commodity (oil) to the capitalist world market, particularly the United States.

Thus, the state-owned property, where it exists at all, retains a thoroughly state capitalist rather than socialist character. Making this analysis does not at all downplay the significance of the developments there, particularly the widespread radicalisation and popularisation of Marxist politics, but recognises the continued capitalist character of the Venezuelan state and economy.

In this context the arming of the people becomes central to defendin their struggles for work, wages, land, and also to provide the only means of destroying this capitalist state, i.e. breaking it up making a real revolution - seizing power. Chavistas will immediately argue that the task of arming the people has begun. Chávez first announced the creation of Misiá³n Miranda, the creation of civilian militias in April 2005, and in March of 2006 the first training programme for around two million reservists was started. Arms purchases intended to supply the programme (including the acquisition of 100,000 Russian AK-47s) has provoked fierce criticism from the US and Colombian governments. The arming of large sections of the people is an important development in Venezuela and implies a huge escalation in the revolutionary struggle. However, the arming of a reservist militia is done solely through the Bolivarian circles - the weapons are controlled by the Chávistas and the MVR - and the militia is answerable directly to Chávez himself.

It would be foolish to think that the militia is only being used to deter foreign intervention. It is also manifestly a warning to the bourgeois opposition that Chávez will defend himself from internal unrest. Of course, when this force is mobilised against the right wing reactionaries and their coup attempts, then workers and socialists must have unity with the Chavistas to put down the coup. At the same time, it can not be excluded that the militia will be used against other social forces and left critics of Chávez in the future.

Chávez’ recent proposals to unite the Bolivarian movement in a single political party and amend the constitution so as to abolish the limit on presidential terms, taken together with this establishment of a militia, do create echoes of the bureaucratic regimes, which claimed to be socialist, of the 20th century. The key question is, to what extent is the working class in a position to organise independently of the Bonapartist regime and open up the road to socialism by means of a revolutionary programme? A study of the trade union movement and the far left is crucial to answering this question.

The unions and the party

The National Union of Workers (UNT) was formed out of the struggle both within and outside the old federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CVT). The CTV pursued class collaboration with the bosses and supported the coup and lockout. The UNT has taken advantage of new labour laws to unionise workers and its success was marked by last year’s Mayday rallies where the UNT had half a million workers and the CTV less than 1,000.

Nearly 3,000 delegates attended the second UNT conference on 25-27 May 2006. Delegates represented some 1.2 million workers organised in 700 local unions and 16 national unions. But, as soon as General Secretary Marcelo Maspero started to speak, chants of “elections, elections, we want elections” went up.

Orlando Chirino, an oil worker and leader of the Class Struggle Current, had the support of about 70 per cent of the delegates. He is in favour of defending Chávez against imperialism but remaining independent of his movement. The Class Struggle Current was calling for the elections, because, since its inception in August 2003, the UNT leadership has been self-appointed.

The minority groupings, such as the Bolivarian Workers’ Force (FBT) and the autonomous grouping, grew out of the struggles against the CVT, and is more supportive of Chávez. Some have links with parts of the Labour ministry.

The small Revolutionary Marxist Current (RMC), linked to the International Marxist Tendency, argued that the conference should have discussed a programme for the UNT and an action plan to put the working class at the centre of the revolutionary process. Such a programme, it said, needs to fight for workers control of the factories, for the nationalisation of industry under democratic control with the participation of the working class, and for the abolition of the capitalist state and its replacement with a revolutionary workers state.

This is good. But the RMC counterposed this to the need to elect a leadership, which it argued was not the priority. On priorities, they sided with the Chavistas’ emphasis on campaigning to re-elect the president. As they put it: “The battle to re-elect the president is inseparable from the struggle to resolve the grave problems that the workers and the vast majority of the population continue to suffer, and from the need to build socialism.” Far from it, the real battle is for working class independence and to build a revolutionary workers’ party that can take power.

Indeed the RMC accused those who “want to split the UNT away from the Bolivarian movement” of “ultraleftism”. This was no doubt a veiled reference to the Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS), which is critical of the UNT’s connections to the government and is linked to the Chirino grouping. While stating that it is the duty of socialists to stand shoulder to shoulder with the masses to defend Chávez from imperialist attack, it also calls for the formation of a “mass revolutionary party”. There is even talk of it standing candidates against the Bolivarian movement in local elections to expose the state bureaucrats or “capitalists who wear red berets”.

The PRS - whose cadres mainly come from the Morenoite tradition - advocate the expropratiation of the bourgeoisie under workers control and fight for social revolution on world-scale. However, its programme is rather evasive on the question of what should replace the bourgeois state machinery and how workers can achieve this. Despite this left-centrist character to its programme, however, the PRS is the most advanced political organisation in Venezuala, with a real working class base.

It is in this context that we should view Chávez’ call, on 18 December 2006, for a common party to unite the coalition of parties on which his power rests. He called on his supporters to dissolve all their existing parties and to form a new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Chávez claimed the sheer number of parties that currently support his government are an obstacle to the creation of his 21st century socialism: “We need one party, not an alphabet soup with which we would be falling over each other in lies and cheating the people.” He made his determination clear by saying that those parties, which wish to preserve themselves, would have to leave his government.

Chávez call is designed to prevent the emergence of a real working class party - just as the Chavistas’ refusal to elect officers of the UNT congress is a clear sign that they are not prepared to subordinate them to workers’ democracy, particularly if they could be beaten from the left.

In the current period it is obviously difficult for those forces striving for working class independence to resist the pressure of politically subordinating to the populism of Chávez, or to commit the other political error of sectarianism, but it must be done.

In the presidential elections, the PRS made a significant tactical error, by calling for a vote for Chávez, rather than standing its own candidate on the basis of a programme of transitional demands. It could have used the campaign to combine a call for deepening the progressive measures of the Chávez government, and made clear that the PRS and Classistas would defend Venezuala against imperialist attack and counter-revolutionary attempts by the capitalists. But it would have pointed out why the working class needs to become the leading force in the revolution, why it needs to organise its own party and fight for the creation of a workers’ republic in Venezuala as a part of a united socialist states of Latin America.

The PRS did not do so. Obviously, it would be political suicide to simply dissolve the PRS into Chávez new party. However, it would be a major error to stand aside as Chávez creates his United Socialist Party. Revolutionaries should involve themselves in all debates and meetings, arguing that the question of programme - the strategy for socialism - must be discussed democratically, as must the nature of the party’s structure and organisation. The PRS as any other working class organisation - be it party, union or communal organisation - has to demand and fight for full democratic rights, including the right form public factions and tendencies.

We have analysed the political origins of Chávez, characterised him as a left Bonapartist and pointed to the limited, populist character of his reform programme and, within this framework, placed his rise firmly in the political and historical context of neoliberal globalisation and resistance to it. In the last part of this article we look at the radical change in Chávez’ rhetoric since he was returned to power in December - with more than 60 per cent of the popular vote. Chávez has since made a series of remarkable proclamations on the need to deepen the “socialist revolution”.

On 8 January, while swearing in his new ministers, he announced a programme centred around five “motors” of the revolutionary process. Chávez called the first of these, an Enabling Law to allow him to issue decrees with the full force of law. This, he argued, would be the “mother law” of the entire Bolivarian socialist project. When invoked it would then allow him for one year to issue decrees. He announced he would use it to nationalise industries that had been privatised under previous governments. “All of that which was privatised, let it be nationalised”, he said.

Immediate targets include the electricity company, Electricidad de Caracas, and Media giant, CA Nacional Teléfonos de Venezuela (CANTV). Taking over the latter would pull the plugs on the Opposition-controlled television channel, RCTV, that has ceaselessly mobilised against Chávez, including during all the failed coups and destabilisation campaigns of the last eight years. Also, the government would take a majority holding in the Orinoco Oil Belt project, at present a joint venture with several foreign companies, including Exxon Mobil and BP.

The second of these motors is further reform to the constitution, including adding the statement that the Venezuelan state is a “Bolivarian socialist” one. He explained: “We’re moving toward a socialist republic of Venezuela and that requires a deep reform of our national constitution. We’re heading toward socialism and nothing and no one can prevent it.” Another constitutional reform he has suggested is an end to the limitation on the number of times one person can be elected president.

The third motor is the launch of a new drive for “Bolivarian popular education” which would “deepen the new values and demolish the old values of individualism, capitalism, of egotism.” The fourth is what he called “a new geometry of power for the national map” to bring in the marginalised poorer regions of the country into economic and cultural development.

Finally, his fifth motor is what he calls an “explosion of communal power”. Chávez proposes giving much more power to the recently created communal councils of 200-400 families in the barrios, each of which will elect representatives to a municipal council. He has announced that $5 billion will be spent on them in 2007. Indeed, he envisages these councils progressively replacing the existing state structure. What is needed, said Chávez, is to “dismantle the bourgeois state” because all states “were born to prevent revolutions”. No doubt, some centrists and left Stalinists will proclaim these councils as soviets; however, this would be great deception to the Venezuelan masses.

The councils will be closely related to the misiá³nes and provide a forum for the participation of local people in the delivery of social services. The danger, while they are to an extent established in parallel to the state, they ultimately fall under the sway and domination of Chávez. Thus, they lack the class independence of organisations like the soviets of the Russion revolution.

For all Chávez’ rhetoric, he has not brought forward measures to abolish and disarm the state police, nor called for rank and file soldiers’ councils, which could challenge the power of the generals. Critically, Chávez sees the Bolivarian state, rather than the working class, as the key actor in the leadership of the revolution.

This informs his position on nationalisation. For the Venezuelan capitalist class and the imperialists this is probably the most contentious of his proposals as it threatens their control of sections of production. Chávez has made it clear that in all cases the owners will be compensated. As well as granting the former owners a guaranteed income for decades to come, at the working class’ expense and without even the usual risks of capitalist investment, this also signals the possibility of reversing the nationalisations in the future. In short, this is far from Marx’s call to “expropriate the expropriators”.

Without organs of working class control over production, nationalisation will create a form of bureaucratic state capitalism, rather than the socialisation of production. Even if Chávez, using his strengthened state apparatus, were to completely expropriate the capitalist class and institute a state plan of production, without workers democratic contol over the plan, the outcome would be at best a bureacratic degenerate workers state on the model of Stalin’s USSR - not a democratic workers state in transition to socialism.

One important choice the Chávez regime will have to make in the future is whether to generalise the co-operative or co-management models. Both point in the direction of different social systems, one a utopian form of market socialism based on workers’ shares in co-operatives, and the other a bureaucratic statist form of capitalism. Chávez believes that in nationalising key industries and enabling social reforms to proceed he is establishing socialism, without the expropriation of the owners, without the seizure of all the big corporations, banks, landed estates, and in the absence of planning to suppress the operation of the market. Such measures are not socialism. They remain state-capitalism - a major feature of many third world countries up to the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s.

This is why the question of the character of the state that is carrying these out measures remains absolutely essential. It is with good reason that Marxists argue that there is no reformist road to socialism, as we know the forces of the bourgeois state will defend private property relations. In Venezuela it is inconceivable the bourgeoisie will simply allow their economic power to be reformed out of existence - they have already attempted a coup against Chávez when he was at his much less radical.

The question is, will the masses who follow Chávez find out in time; will they find it out whilst they are on the offensive, when they are strong and the bourgeoisie weak, or will they find it out after the movement has stalled, after Chávez has begun to retreat? The death of former dictator August Pinochet in December 2006 served as a timely reminder of a possible way of finding this out - by a bloody military coup, as happened in Chile in 1973. A major economic crisis, either as part of a world recession or if there is deflationary pressures on the oil price, could act as a stimulus to the wave of reaction.

That is what is so wrong when “socialists” argue that to warn of this, to prepare an alternative course of action is premature or dangerous - or even that Chávez can carry out a socialist revolution by step-by-step reforms. Eventually, the capitalist class will mobilise again, this time with more support from their fellow ruling classes abroad. The precise form this will take remains to be seen. It could be an assassination attempt on Chávez , economic sanctions or, less probable given the US’s current commitments in the Middle East, an invasion.

Naturally, Chávez’ speeches have drawn an extremely hostile response from the press. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal have all accused him of being a dictator and of turning Venezuela into another Cuba - by which they mean a totally nationalised and planned economy. But this is something Chávez cannot do without one of two courses of action. Both mean a qualitative change of direction.

The first would be to support a real social revolution - i.e. the seizure of the whole of the state power by the masses organised in workers and peasants’ councils, the dissolution of the armed forces into the armed people, the expropriation of the entire capitalist class, the socialisation of production under democratic planning and workers control. To ensure this, a revolutionary workers’ party would be necessary - not one subordinate to or dependant on a president. In short, it would mean Chávez transforming himself from a left Bonapartist into a member of a revolutionary party. Since this has never happened before, it would be the most foolish perspective to rely on.

But many will object that this did indeed happen in Cuba. Fidel Castro made the transition from anti-imperialist populist to the leader of a “communist” state. Indeed, in the 20th century history showed an alternative to a social revolution led by the working class and its party - a bureaucratic social revolution. In this case the working class was prevented from taking political power but the capitalists lost their social and political power.

Castro and his victorious guerrilla army came to power as anti-imperialist populists not as socialists, though Che Guevara and Castro’s brother Raul certainly regarded themselves as communists. They did, however, unlike Chávez, destroy the old Cuban army of the dictator Batista, replacing it with one based on their guerrilla forces. A series of nationalisations, without compensation and answered by a US blockade and attempts to engineer a coup (the Bay of Pigs fiasco), pushed Castro on to the creation of a workers’ state on the same economic and political model as then existed in the Soviet Union. The enormous military and economic support of the latter played a very important role in allowing this to happen.

Since the working class played no conscious role in this process, since no workers’ democracy was created in the revolution, Castro and co. became its ruling bureaucracy.

Cuba became and remains a one party state - without workers’ councils and with the rule of the party and military bureaucracy. It has only the trappings of democratic consultation, referendums, and elections in which no rival workers’ parties are allowed.

Many of the circumstances favourable to the bureaucratic social revolution in Cuba in the early 1960s no longer exist. However, Cuba exists. American imperialism exists and will sooner or later blockade Venezuela if it continues to defy it. Thus such an overturn cannot be entirely ruled out. Moreover, both inside Venezuela and around the world increasing numbers - including some who call themselves Trotskyist - will advocate this as the right direction to take, i.e. “follow the Cuban road!”

So what is the problem with “the Cuban Road”? Quite simply it does not lead to socialism. Socialism is a society where social equality grows, all privileges diminish and the basis for a completely classless society is laid. To carry out this programme workers democracy must exist, to check and remove bureaucracy, to check and improve economic planning, to decide which party or parties represent the interests of the working-class.

Above all socialism cannot be built in one country - not even one continent! A workers’ state must be a fortress, a base from which the revolution can spread across the globe. Isolation of the revolution even in a huge country like Russia means in the end the “socialisation” of shortages and poverty and the private appropriation by the party and state bureaucracy of a huge mass of privileges. The Stalinist road - and for all its anti-imperialist rhetoric and guerilla glamour the Cuban road is the Stalinist road - is a cul de sac. As in Russia, Eastern Europe and China it leads to the restoration of capitalism.

Some people will argue that, far from taking the Cuban road, Chávez is taking the road of permanent revolution - Trotsky’s Road.

At his presidential inauguration on 10 January 2006, Chávez emphasised the idea that Venezuela was entering what he called an eight-year transition to socialism. He cited not only the ideas of Karl Marx and Lenin but also said “I’m very much of Trotsky’s line, the permanent revolution.”

Just before this Chávez himself reported that when he was calling José Ramá³n Rivero González, to offer him the post of Minister of Labour and Social Security, “he says to me, ‘President, I want to say something to you, before going on to that issue... I am a Trotskyist.’ I said to him, ‘Good, what’s the problem? I too am a Trotskyist! I am of the line of Trotsky, of permanent revolution.”

Before Trotskyists convince themselves that Chávez is a semi-Trotskyist because of his declaration, that he believes in the strategy of permanent revolution, they should remember that he has equally declared himself a supporter of Jesus, Mao, Fidel Castro, Simon Bolivar too.

But what exactly does Chávez mean by his remarkable claim to adhere to the theory of permanent revolution? Chávez clearly identifies it with a process of increasing socialist measures and some form of international spread of the revolution. As we noted earlier Chávez’ socialism remains limited to a very radical reformism, based on selected nationalisations with compensation rather than full-scale expropriation of the ruling class. What limits the project, which makes it fundamentally at odds with Trotsky’s method, is the bourgeois state remains the decisive actor in the “revolutionary process”. In addition, Chávez has given his full-scale political support to fellow bourgeois populist leaders in Latin America, such as Lula in Brazil, and sought to develop (capitalist) economic integration, in the form of trade and finance deals.

This “permanent revolution” is a million miles away from the strategy developed by Leon Trotsky at the beginning of the 20th century. For Trotsky the central revolutionary actor is the working class, itself allied to the poor peasantry, the popular classes of town and countryside, but not dissolved into “the people”. It requires these forces to organise in councils of recallable delegates elected in the workplaces, the villages, the barracks, the barrios.

The theory of permanent revolution recognises the impossibility of legislating for socialism either by presidential decree or in a bourgeois parliament. This revolution means the seizure of power from the ruling class and the disintegration of the old state machine - the army, police and state bureaucracy.

This must be replaced with an entirely new form of state power: a workers’ state. This would be based on councils of delegates, elected at and recallable by mass meetings in the workplaces and popular districts and defended by a mass militia. Large-scale production will be taken out of the hands of the rich and by means of workers’ control over production and the distribution of all goods and services, organised according to a democratic plan.

Finally, far from believing socialism can be be built in a single country, the workers state fights to internationalise the revolution, i.e. for the overthrow of the bourgeois class across Latin America and the World.


Permanent revolution is not an objective historical process that will find a way to its goal through any medium, be this through a “socialist president” or through the spontaneous struggles of the masses. Its objective basis is the combination of a profound crisis of class rule, of neoliberal globalisation and imperialism both in Venezuela and internationally and the mass movements of resistance this has generated. But no unconscious or semi-conscious process can ensure that these struggles will adopt the right strategy and tactics for victory. In order for the working class to win power, establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and set about building an alternative society, a revolutionary party is necessary, one which embodies this whole strategy in its programme and tirelessly wins the vanguard of every mass struggle to it.

The starting point for such a party is fighting for the political independence of the working class from every section of the ruling class and its state. Thus it cannot give political support to the Chávez government - despite defending it against any attacks by imperialism and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. In the final analysis the Chávez government remains a bourgeois government. Political support for, let alone participation in such a government would inevitably involve a defence of capitalist property relations and the integrity of the bourgeois state forces against the masses.

A revolutionary party must, nevertheless, support each and every concrete pro-working class measure the government takes and at the same time as exposing their limitations, calling on the workers to go further and demanding the measures needed to fully meet the needs of the masses. This means involving itself in the struggles of the workers and barrio population whilst they still put their faith in Chávez, while warning against the dangers in Chávez’ Bonapartism, the concentration of executive power in his own hands, even if he is turning to the left.

Certainly Chávez has, been forced to mobilise the support of the popular masses, yet he is not accountable to them in any organised way. He can appeal to them en masse, in a plebiscitary way (i.e. ask for a “yes or no” to his proposals) but he can also use this to steamroller any opposition. For all his democratic rhetoric he stands “above the masses” and oscillates between their interests and the task of maintaining capitalist property and the state forces. Revolutionaries have to explain this, otherwise when he turns to the right, as he will do, he will use these Bonapartist powers against an unprepared and trusting mass, which simply has no alternative leadership to him. However, he will use these powers first to discredit, disrupt and if need be destroy such an alternative whilst it is in formation.

The formation of the Classista current in the UNT and the foundation of the Partido Revolucion y Socialismo show that a section of the working class is already striving for class independence from Chávez while encouraging and leading the masses into transforming the “Bolivarian revolution” into a socialist one.

Chávez’ decision to launch a new United Socialist Party is an attempt to prevent the development of an independent and critical working class party. Most of the parties supporting Chávez, for all their grumblings about his proposal, are engaged in securing posts for themselves in government and the state apparatus. This will lead most of them to join the new party and subordinate themselves to Chávez.

Chávez insists: “This United Socialist Party will of course be the most democratic party in Venezuelan history. That’s right, the most democratic; it’ll be opened up for discussion, across the board.”

While no one should rely on Chávez to create a new party on a truly democratic basis, on the basis, revolutionaries should, if they are allowed to, participate in the mass discussion about what the basis of such a party should be. First there is the issue of the party’s political foundation, its programme. What objectives does it embody?

• What solution does it propose to the land question - not just for the unused land of the corporations like the Vesteys, but on the huge ranches of the Venezuelan elite?
• What solution does it propose to the situation in the factories - not just to the bankrupt enterprises whose mangers are trying to close them down, but all of them?
• Where will the resources be found to massively extend the work of the misiá³nes, to employ the 50 per cent of the population still existing in destitution and insecurity?
• What mass democratic form is needed to “replace the bourgeois state” and can the municipal councils be transformed into such bodies?
• What is to be done with the standing army, its officer corps and generals, and the police force so that they can never be used against the working people?
• What armed militia is needed so that the masses are never victims of a military coup or an imperialist invasion?

A revolutionary programme must give a clear answer to these and many other questions. It must be a clear, coherent consistent strategy that leads openly to the working class conquest of power.

In any new mass socialist party there must be an open debate about programme, with alternative drafts, with the final congress to adopt it accurately reflecting the different political tendencies that have arisen in the debate. Revolutionaries must argue for a programme for social revolution, for working class power and the transition to socialism.

Likewise there must be a discussion on internal party democracy. This requires that the leadership and all the party’s parliamentary representatives are subject to control and recall by annual congresses and by the executive bodies elected by it. It requires recognised rights for minorities to organise.

This is not the first time semi-colonial leaders have engaged in Marxist rhetoric. Such outbursts were common currency right up until the 1980s. However, neoliberal globalisation and the collapse of the Soviet Union changed all that. The fact that Chávez is now challenging this consensus illustrates the importance and significance of the resistance movements of the last ten years.

If it were not for the deep quagmire US imperialism finds itself in the Middle East, we can be sure the relatively muted anger with which the administration has greeted Chávez’ declarations, would be replaced by outspoken neo-conservative aggression. In any case, the working class movement and the social movements cannot afford to be complacent.

We must rally to the defence of Venezuela the minute Bush, the US Congress and the US multinationals attempt retaliatory measures. The need to defend Venezuela with the fully mobilised forces of millions is yet another indication of the need to transform the World Social Forum and the continental social forums into fighting bodies that can take action. Chávez himself called for just such a development at the WSF in 2005 and at the Americas version of the WSF in Caracas the following year. On this he was right.

The unfolding events in Venezuela are of enormous significance, not least because of the critical issues they raise for the working class movement worldwide. With demoralised left reformism and trade unionism in retreat, anarchism persuaded many young anticapitalists that was no need for parties or a “struggle for power”. At the same time postmodernism convinced many radical intellectuals that there was no grand narrative like socialism, no subject of history like the working class. Now the question of seizing political power and using it to change the world is a living question. The words capitalism, imperialism, socialism and revolution are common currency once again.

The questions of course remain, what sort of state can change the world - the bourgeois state or a workers state? What sort of revolution - one made by the working class smashing the capitalist state or one made from on high by “socialist presidents”? What sort of socialism - a series of large-scale reforms in the sphere of distribution or a democratically planned economy based on the expropriated property of the capitalists? And what sort of party - a parliamentary party, a party for advancing Bolivarian reforms, or a party to lead the struggle for power?

Increasingly revolutionaries have to answer these questions in the context of a revolution - like the one unfolding in Venezuela - where life and death consequences will flow from the answers given. This is no doctrinaire debate, as those militants who survived the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary crises of the 1970s in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina could tell us. In the coming months and years we must do all we can - combining practical solidarity with unsparing revolutionary criticism - to ensure that a party is built in Venezuela and globally, which enables the masses to learn these lessons and in good time.

2 Chávez to nationalise companies. 09/01/2007
3 Hugo Chávez: Oil Politics and the challenge to the US by Nikolas Kozloff NY 2006, p8
4 The concept of the labour aristocracy, originally developed by Engels towards the end of the 19th century and taken up in Lenin, is used to describe privileged sections of the working class, who through developing a share in material privilege provide the material basis for reformist ideology in the working class movement.
5 Here, social liberalism refers to bourgeios parties who, unlike social democracy in western Europe for example, lack organic links to the working class.
6 See Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator, 2000, Verso
9 D Raby, Red Pepper Feb 2003
10 March 2004
12 In 2003 Chávez launched several Misiá³nes, social projects funded by the state to provide free healthcare, education and so on, dubbed by some as ’short term anti-poverty measures’
13 L Trotsky nationalised Industry and Workers’ Management, 1938
14 L Trotsky Mexico and British Imperialism 1938
15 Ibid
16 International institute for research and education 1987
17 See Permanent Revolution number 7, for article on Gramsci. Available from Workers Power
19 See Romero 2006 and