Monday, 28 May 2007

Alex Callinicos: the Venezuelan Revolution and the IS Tendency

Letter to the Central Committee of Socialist Worker-New Zealand

24 May 2007

Dear comrades,

Thank you very much for your statement of 1 May 2007, ‘Venezuela’s Deepening Revolution and International Socialist Coordination’. We have, as requested, circulated it to the IS Tendency (as we are also circulating this letter). You raise two issues, first, the significance for revolutionary socialists of the revolutionary processes in Venezuela and Bolivia, and the proposal made by the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) that the IST at its annual meeting in July establish a smaller coordinating body. In both cases, you either imply or assert, there are disagreements between our two organizations. We think you may be right, though we are not clear how significant they are.

Venezuela – a ‘non-topic’ for the SWP?

To take by far the more important of these issues, that of the processes of radicalization underway in parts of Latin America, first, you write:

Is the unfolding Venezuelan revolution the most important leap forward for the workers’ cause since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution? The answer from the delegates at Socialist Worker-New Zealand recent national conference was a unanimous ‘yes’.

The masses in Venezuela are behind a genuinely revolutionary project in a way that has not occurred in the last 90 years. While nothing is certain, this could well create the mass impetus for a huge revival in the international revolutionary socialist movement.

Granted this assessment of what you call the ‘epochal significance’ of the Venezuelan Revolution it is entirely natural that you should scrutinize the response of the IST. Here you find the SWP in particular wanting:

At present, there seem to be real differences between IST affiliates over the nature of what is happening in Venezuela. At one end of the IST spectrum, Socialist Worker-New Zealand see Chávez & Co as being at the centre of the most important ‘revolution in the revolution’ since the Bolsheviks proclaimed ‘All Power to the Soviets’ in 1917 Russia. At the other end of the IST spectrum, the Venezuelan revolution was a ‘non-topic’ in the official discussion bulletins of the British Socialist Workers Party in the lead-up to their national conference in January 2007.

It isn’t the most important issue involved here, but we have to point out that it simply isn’t true that we ignored Venezuela in the lead-up to and at our conference. The significance of the new forms of popular power that have developed in Bolivia and Venezuela was the subject of some debate. We had, moreover, highlighted the revolutionary processes in these two countries in the document, ‘International Perspectives 2006-7’, circulated during the pre-conference discussion:

Since the mid-1990s the neo-liberal offensive has provoked waves of resistance that provide the conditions for a renewal of the left. The region where this resistance has developed to the highest level is, of course, Latin America, where the governments of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia have become lightning conductors for the confrontation between the new movements on the one hand and neo-liberalism and imperialism on the other. The significance of Venezuela and Bolivia lies in the interplay between movements from below and governments that identify with these movements. Chávez in particular has sought to project himself as a global figure championing ‘21st century socialism’ and challenging US hegemony.

Here then are cases where resistance to neo-liberalism has gone beyond simply stopping obnoxious ‘reforms’ and has begun to seek alternatives. Thus the Morales government’s attempt to restore state control over Bolivia’s hydrocarbon reserves puts the issue of social ownership as an alternative to privatization back onto the agenda. But the obstacles confronting these experiments are very real.

The efforts of the US and the Latin American ruling classes to contain the ‘Chávez effect’ have been successful in the presidential elections in Peru and Mexico (in the latter case at the price of massive electoral fraud that has split the country in two). The Bolivian oligarchy openly threatens Morales with secession and civil war. In both Venezuela and Bolivia left-wing presidents sit atop state machines programmed to defend the status quo. These problems can only begin to be addressed through a new breakthrough in which the mass movements begin to develop organs of popular power that can supplant the old state apparatuses.

Of course, there is much more to be said about Venezuela and Bolivia, and we have tried to say some of it, notably in our publications. Anyone who consults on the web the back-issues of Socialist Worker, Socialist Review, and International Socialism could not but be struck by the extent of our coverage of the major developments in these two countries over the past few years. Moreover, among the main memories that participants in Marxism 2006 would have taken away was the impact of the Latin American speakers, notably Roland Dennis from Venezuela and Oscar Oliveira from Bolivia. We hope to continue this at Marxism 2007 in London in July with the participation of the Venezuelan Trotskyist trade union leader, Stalin Perez, who has spoken at the Greek SWP’s own Marxism event in 2006 and 2007.

But we haven’t just written and spoken about Bolivia and Venezuela. One of the main ways in which the IST has developed since the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement at Seattle has been the interventions we have made at the various Social Forums. The biggest we have made to date in a World Social Forum was at the ‘polycentric’ event in Caracas in January 2006. This didn’t just involve the comrades who went in considerable discussion and cooperation with Venezuelan activists, as can be gleaned from the extensive reports in Socialist Worker and Socialist Review: two leading IST members, Petros Constantinou (Greece) and Chris Nineham (Britain), took part in a delegation of the international anti-war movement that had a lengthy meeting with Hugo Chávez.

Assessing the Venezuelan revolution

No doubt we could have done more and better, but this record hardly suggests Venezuela is a ‘non-topic’ for the SWP or indeed other IST organizations. Having got this red herring out of the way, let’s consider whether there are more substantive political disagreements that separate us. To begin with, is what’s happening in Venezuela ‘the most important “revolution in the revolution”’ since October 1917? Bigger than Germany 1918-23, Spain 1936, Hungary 1956, France May 1968, Portugal 1975-6, Poland 1980-1? All of these were defeated, you might say, but then, as you note, the outcome of the revolutionary process in Venezuela is uncertain: it too might be defeated, though we hope and strive to ensure that it won’t. Moreover, in all the episodes we have just listed organized and – more important – self-organized workers played a central role, while you acknowledge that it is a ‘weakness’ that ‘organized workers’ in Venezuela are not yet ‘in the forefront of the revolution’.

We don’t need problematic comparisons with October 1917 to get a full measure of the significance of what’s under way in Venezuela. The unsuccessful coup in April 2002 unleashed an unfinished process of radicalization driven by the interplay between Chávez and the movement from below, which have become progressively more dependent on one another. Even at the present stage where, as you acknowledge, no decisive break with capitalism has yet been made either politically or economically, this development is of enormous ideological significance for the reasons given in our document cited above – first, the movements in Venezuela and Bolivia have gone beyond simply resisting neoliberalism to seeking to construct alternatives; and, second, Chávez, in embracing socialism and drawing on a range of radical thinkers from Chomsky to Trotsky has helped to legitimize systemic critiques of capitalism itself and not merely opposition to some of its more unpleasant features.

All of this is more than enough to justify defending Chávez and giving solidarity to the movement in Venezuela, as we have quite consistently since the 2002 coup. But it is important to add two qualifications to this. First, as we put it in our ‘International Perspectives 2005’, ‘if the movements are most advanced in Latin America, the most important front in the struggle against US imperialism is in Iraq.’ It is the resistance in Iraq that is in the process of inflicting the most serious defeat American imperialism has suffered since the Vietnam War. By tying down the Pentagon’s military machine in Iraq, the resistance has made a decisive contribution to creating the space that has allowed the resistance in Latin America to develop and, in the cases of Venezuela and Bolivia, to develop a more explicitly anti-capitalist dynamic.

Therefore we believe that the most important single internationalist task of revolutionaries today is to build the international movement against the ‘war on terrorism’. Defeating the Bush administration’s imperialist offensive is critical to the success of every struggle against neoliberalism and capitalism, including those in Venezuela and Bolivia. This is particularly important for revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist world since it gives a task that relates directly to the politics of our own societies rather than merely leave us to cheerlead for Latin American revolutions.

Secondly, the revolutionary process in Venezuela is, as we have said, ‘unfinished’. By this we mean, not simply that what you rightly call ‘the existing capitalist state’ in Venezuela has yet to be smashed, but that the Bolivarian Revolution is itself ideologically unfinished. You write: ‘While Chávez & Co started from a radical reformist viewpoint, the unfolding class struggle has pushed them towards a socialist perspective which is now assuming ever-sharper mass revolutionary features.’ It is undoubtedly true that the logic of Chávez’s situation, where his political and personal survival has depended on stimulating and sustaining mass movements from below, has encouraged a journey of intellectual discovery that seems entirely genuine. But you overstate the coherence and stability of the outcome, for example, in the significance of you attach to Chávez’s ‘calling himself a Trotskyist’.

Chávez says a lot of things. For example, in a broadcast on 22 April he said: ‘I cannot be classified as a Trotskyist, no, but I tend towards that, because I respect very much the thoughts of Leon Trotsky, and the more I respect him the more I understand him better. The permanent revolution for instance, is an extremely important thesis. We must read, we must study, all of us, nobody here can think he already knows.’ He went on to praise the Transitional Programme. But exciting though such remarks may be for Trotskyists confined to the political margins for two generations, it doesn’t alter the fact that he presides over a bureaucratic state machine that continues to sustain capitalist social relations against the mass movements on which any real revolutionary breakthrough depends. Hence the constant balancing act between the state and the mass movements that he is constantly forced into.

Chávez’s way out of this trap seems to be the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). You say: ‘While the initiative for the PSUV came from Chávez, it will be built “from below”’. This isn’t really the picture we have from Venezuela. What we read and hear about are activists complaining about the top-down pressures on different elements of the left to join up. For example, the Trotskyist leadership of the UNT (National Workers Union), after initially resisting these pressures, have decided to integrate their federation into the PSUV, but more for tactical reasons than out of principled agreement with Chávez’s project. Whether or not forming the PSUV is the right step is something over which revolutionaries can legitimately differ. But surely we can agree that a genuinely united mass party of the left can only emerge from an organic process of debate. Any forced merger can only increase the danger that the PSUV will become a bureaucratic transmission belt for the government.

Moreover, as Chris Harman puts it in International Socialism,

The call for a united socialist party is popular with many activists sick of the careerism, opportunism and jockeying for position of the three main parliamentary Chávista parties (MVR, Podemos and PPT). But it cannot provide an answer to the chaos because it will reflect in itself all the contradictory attitudes within the Chávista ranks. A party, in the real meaning of the term, is an organised current of people committed to a single political orientation. Chávism contains three such currents at present. There are those who want 'consolidation' through a cessation of any further threats to the privileges of capital and the upper classes; those who hanker after a Cuban-style authoritarian regime (at the very time that powerful forces in the Cuban regime are hankering after a replica of the Chinese approach, combining authoritarianism and the market); and those who want a thoroughgoing social transformation, the destruction of capitalism and genuine revolutionary democracy involving mass participation. The attempt to combine in a single organisation what are effectively three different parties cannot overcome the chaos.

One reason for adding these notes of caution is to avoid the mistakes that the far left have made over past revolutions in Latin America. For example, in the mid-1980s the Socialist Workers Party (US) and the organization now calling itself the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) in Australia abandoned the theory of permanent revolution and broke with the Fourth International on the grounds that the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua had thrown up a ‘new revolutionary leadership’ that rendered the Trotskyist tradition obsolete. This political shift led both organizations in what can be best described as a left Stalinist direction that, for example, led the DSP to try to resurrect the bankrupt formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ in respect of the Indonesian Revolution of 1998.

We believe that there is a qualitative difference between the cases of Nicaragua and other Central American struggles in the 1980s and Bolivia and Venezuela today. The geopolitical context has changed dramatically – then the Second Cold War made the Sandinistas and the FMLN in El Salvador key targets in the Reagan administration’s counter-revolutionary strategy, now, as we have noted, Latin American movements confront a weakened and distracted American imperialism. More important still, the Venezuelan and Bolivian struggles are driven by politically diverse popular movements employing the weapons of mass action, and not by national liberation fronts specializing in guerrilla warfare and therefore necessarily distanced from the urban masses that dominated the Central American left a generation ago.

All the same, we should learn from the mistakes made by the SWP (US) and the DSP and not to be too quick to proclaim that we are on the verge of ‘a mass socialist international’ centred on Caracas. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid the ‘engagement with the Bolivarian Revolution’ that you advocate. On the contrary, as indicated above, we have made some attempts to do so, and will continue with this. The basis on which this should be, in the first place, solidarity with Chávez and the Venezuelan masses in their clashes with both US imperialism and the Venezuelan oligarchy. Following from that we need to develop closer links between trade unions and the like in our own countries and mass organizations in Venezuela (we have taken some steps in this direction here in Britain, but undeniably a lot more could and should be done). Finally, we should, to the best of our abilities as organizations in countries mostly a long way away from Latin America, pursue dialogue with the different elements of the radical and revolutionary left in Venezuela.

All these three dimensions of closer engagement with the Bolivarian Revolution are important and should be pursued simultaneously. But it won’t help in all this to make exaggerated claims about the extent and coherence of Chávez & Co’s move in a decisively revolutionary direction. This isn’t a matter of chucking sectarian brickbats at Chávez for not having accepted the Comintern’s 21 conditions or whatever. We think our record of championing the movements in Venezuela and Bolivia speaks for itself. But serious political dialogue with our comrades in these countries by ignoring the unevenness, inconsistencies, and limitations in what has been achieved there.

IST coordination

The second issue that you raise – that of coordinating the IS Tendency – is of much less moment, and we are indeed a little puzzled that you thought it important enough to include it in a document that you placed on your website and that is therefore circulating on the Net accompanied by lurid reports of divisions inside the IST. Before addressing the point directly in controversy, let us make a preliminary point. You write: ‘rather than looking inwards, the IST needs to be focused outwards towards the most advanced revolutionary upsurge of the past 90 years and the global socialist regroupments it will inevitably set in motion.’

We agree that the IST should be ‘focused outwards’. Indeed, we think that the Tendency is doing exactly this. Without rehearsing all the detailed arguments we have made in the past few years, the SWP in particular has argued that Seattle opened a new period of anti-capitalist struggle that has created major opportunities to renew the revolutionary and radical left. We have accordingly been pursuing dialogue with other currents and exploring the possibilities of regroupment on a very extensive scale. We have participated in the last World Congress of the Fourth International in and the DSP’s Africa-Asia International Solidarity Conference, and have made considerable efforts to develop better understanding and contact with the far left in Latin America and South Asia.

This has produced much closer relationships with some of the key organizations of the radical left internationally – for example, the LCR in France, the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Red Green Alliance in Denmark, and PSOL in Brazil. In line with these closer relations the organizations just mentioned have all sent delegates to the open sessions that have become a regular feature of IST meetings. Moreover, because we reject a rigid distinction between political parties and social movements, we see all our work in the anti-capitalist movement, and especially our interventions in Social Forums and the Cairo Conferences, as part of this same process of renewal and regroupment.

But, as our domestic experience has demonstrated, positively with Respect and more negatively with the Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Socialist Party, this process involves opening out to more than the established revolutionary left. The case of the WASG in Germany demonstrates more spectacularly that elements of social democracy can, in the present period, be won to working with revolutionaries. But we have still to get the full measure of the potential for cooperation and debates with some elements of political Islam.

So we’re all for looking outwards. You tie this issue to our proposal that the IST established a Coordination of selected organizations. You object:

Any such ‘selection’ would leave non-selected IST groups on the margins of IST decision-making, given the tyranny of distance over a global coalition like the IST. It would fix the bureaucratic curse of the initiating ‘centre’ and the non-initiating ‘periphery’ on the IST.

Why can’t every IST affiliate have one representative on the IST Coordination? With modern communications technology, face-to-face meetings in London can be replaced by extremely cheap ’virtual’ meetings that link all continents.

The simple answer to your question is that a Coordination consisting of every group would be no Coordination at all. The IST has a very simple structure. It consists of organizations sharing a common tradition and approach to revolutionary politics. Its meetings are devoted largely to political discussions, with very few decisions being made. These decisions are normally taken by consensus: the only real exception was the exclusion of the ISO (US) in 2001, which followed the ISO intervening to help to engineer a split in our Greek sister organization, SEK.

Rather ironically, for many years the IST structure has resembled the horizontal, consensual style of organization favoured by the autonomists. We have preferred this way of working not out of principle, but because we have felt that a minimal structure fitted our needs and avoided the Comintern-like pretensions of the FI and the like. But, as we have learned in the anti-capitalist movement, very flat structures require someone to coordinate them. The British SWP has played this role, partly because it has far greater resources and partly because of the political authority its leadership has enjoyed in the Tendency.

On the whole, this setup has worked pretty well. We are, however, beginning to think that it may be nearing its sell-by date. This is partly because leaderships that have emerged elsewhere in the world (including outside the advanced capitalist countries) that have enjoyed significant successes in building their own organizations and broader movements. Moreover, thanks particularly to our interventions in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, we have begun to build up significant experience of working together on an international base. To that extent, an international leadership of the IST that is broader than the SWP is already developing.

What we are suggesting is simply to formalize things a little by setting up a small Coordination consisting of organizations chosen by the IST meeting that would take on the work of orchestrating our international interventions and addressing problems in specific groups that is currently undertaken by the SWP leadership. Having instead a Coordination consisting of all the groups, as you propose, may be technically feasible but it doesn’t address the real need, which is for a international working group that would meet, really or virtually, several times to address the issues outlined above. A Coordination of thirty-odd groups would simply be another plenary IST meeting, and less useful than the current one because the demands of virtual communication would probably restrict the time available for in-depth discussion.

We don’t share your fears that the kind of Coordination we propose would be a ‘bureaucratic curse’ that would reduce ‘peripheral’ groups to passivity. For one thing, we don’t accept the distinction between centre and periphery: in our view, among the most important IST groups are some very distant geographically from London. For another, since the IST is a voluntary association of groups with common politics, decisions of the Coordination could only bind groups if they agreed to accept them. Probably the biggest problem in practice would be to persuade organizations to participate in the Coordination, since this would require busy leaderships to allocate resources to tasks that up to now they have left to the SWP.

In any case, it is entirely up to the IST meeting in July to accept, reject, or amend our proposal. We think it is really important that SW-NZ sends a member of your working leadership in Auckland to that meeting. Quite apart from your concerns about the proposed Coordination, you have raised important issues about Venezuela that we need to discuss together, as a Tendency. We are willing to offer financial assistance to help bring your representative over. We would really welcome having you fully involved in our discussions in July. Given what you call the ‘tyranny of distance’, direct contact is limited and we would all benefit from having you here in London.

In comradeship,

Alex Callinicos,

for the SWP Central Committee

1 comment:

Phil said...

"... for many years the IST structure has resembled the horizontal, consensual style of organization favoured by the autonomists. We have preferred this way of working not out of principle, but because we have felt that a minimal structure fitted our needs and avoided the Comintern-like pretensions of the FI and the like."

This statement is rather disingenuous. Throughout the 1990s, the SWP increasingly interfered in the internal operations of other IST groups (for example, in Australia, Germany, France, the US and elsewhere) in the worst tradition of the post-Leninist Comintern, encouraging expulsions, changing leaderships and fomenting splits. Other groups were typically treated as if they were simply branches of the SWP in other countries, often with disastrous results. Apparently nothing has been learned from this history.