Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Louis Proyect: practice should drive theory

(originally posted here) As many of you are aware, there is a debate taking place in the International Socialist Tendency (IST), the state capitalist formation led by the Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain. The New Zealand Socialist Workers Party, an affiliate, has begun to push for a much more positive attitude toward Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution:
Socialists worldwide should be enthusiastic about the Bolivarian Revolution. Socialists worldwide need to engage with the revolution’s leaders, who will be in the PSUV, so there can be a reciprocity of ideas that promotes the global struggle for grassroots self-emancipation. Thus Socialist Worker-New Zealand is looking to forge practical links with our PSUV comrades in a land where socialism is well on the way to becoming a determining force.
In his response to the New Zealanders, Alex Callinicos of the British SWP tries to stake out a position somewhere in-between the New Zealander’s enthusiasm and the kind of hostility expressed in a Chris Harman article from 5 years ago:
Chavez has described the attempts of the upper classes to get rid of him as a “class struggle”. But his response to these attempts has only partially relied on the backing of the country’s poor. After the attempted coup in April he repeatedly called for “national conciliation” between the rich and the poor. Although the US had given some backing to the coup, he declared he was prepared to work to ensure the US government got its oil supplies. And while Chavez denounced neo-liberalism in words, his government’s budget accepted the neo-liberal principle of cuts in government services. The result is that the poor have continued to get poorer. Meanwhile, public sector workers have been faced with job cuts and cancellation of bonuses to which they are entitled.
Although Callinicos et al do not use the term “Bonapartist” to describe Chavez, it is not too difficult to glean this from his response to the New Zealanders:
But exciting though such remarks [a reference to Chavez’s salute to some of Trotsky’s writings] 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 [ie, Bonapartist] between the state and the mass movements that he is constantly forced into.
Clearly, what’s at work here is the “socialism from below” mindset that I do not find very useful, particularly in Venezuela. While Chavez superficially might be regarded as “from above” because of his military background, there is clear evidence of his close bonds to revolutionary organizations operating at the grass roots level. If I were the IST, I’d pay a little less attention to orthodox Trotskyist figures like the oddly named Stalin Perez and more to the men and women who were members of Causa R and now form the backbone of the Bolivarist movement. They were the first to understand the importance of Chavez’s initiatives and have helped keep the revolution on track, even if they haven’t gotten the kind of attention they deserve. Callinicos tells the New Zealanders that they should be careful and not make the mistakes of the American SWP and the Australian DSP, who were formerly political allies in the Fourth International. The first group has evolved into a grotesque sect-cult while the Australians are doing a good job building a socialist propaganda group under difficult circumstances. Some time ago, Peter Camejo urged them to study the Causa R but they unfortunately seem to prefer the Zinovievist methodology of James P. Cannon, the founder of the American SWP. Callinicos writes:
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.
There’s a lot of analysis (most of it incorrect) that is packed into the preceding three paragraphs. Let me try to sort things out as they say in British gangster movies. To begin with, I think it is necessary to avoid thinking in categories such as “permanent revolution” or “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” when it comes to a living revolution. In my own writings on Nicaragua, I have tried to describe the social and economic processes without resorting to formulae that arose from the Russian revolution. When Trotsky developed the theory of the permanent revolution, it was part and parcel of trying to understand what was unique to the struggle against Czarism. But the theory was driven by the data and not the other way around. In general, I find that Trotskyist groups are always trying to shoehorn reality into their pet theories. A much better way to proceed is to study the history of the country in question and develop an analysis that engages with that history and not some other country’s history. While it is easy to take potshots at the transformed FSLN of today, there was every reason to acknowledge their breakthrough in 1970s and 80s. This was the first revolutionary movement to have won the backing of the overwhelming majority of workers and peasants since 1959. It was incumbent on all revolutionaries to study what had worked in Nicaragua, especially the ability of the FSLN to craft a program that was rooted in the Nicaraguan experience. Their ability to raise slogans that connected with the experience of poor peasants and workers was much more critical than where they stood on “permanent revolution”. There is also some confusion on Callinicos’s part about the role of mass action in the Central American revolutions of the 1970s and 80s, which he unfortunately sees in terms of Regis Debray’s foquismo theory:
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.
Actually, the guerrilla warfare in El Salvador only took place after a prolonged series of powerful mass actions were finally drowned in blood by the government. Even after the movement was forced to go underground, the urban masses were deeply involved in the struggle. It would appear that Callinicos is making the same mistake that his comrade Mike Gonzalez has made about the Cuban revolution. Rather than seeing it exclusively in terms of rural guerrilla warfare, it is better to trace the deeper historical roots in the left-nationalist parties such as the Ortodoxos and much earlier institutions and personalities such as José Marti. From this perspective, there is much more in common between the “urban” Venezuela and the “rural” Cuba than seen at first blush. Finally, it would appear that there are certain built-in limits to Callinicos’s goal:
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.
That dialog will be difficult to sustain in the face of IST hostility to the Cuban revolution. Unfortunately for the comrades, there is the obvious political affinity between the Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, and Bolivian heads of state and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Even the Grant-Woods tendency has been forced to backtrack on its assessment of Cuba, a sea change in the kind of ortho-Trotskyist politics they represent. It continues to astonish me how detached from reality these otherwise sensible comrades are in the face of Fidel Castro’s recent communiqués. Most revolutionaries would greet his words, drafted from his sickbed, as astonishing in their insight and commitment to class politics. Two months ago, Castro wrote an article titled “Where Have All the Bees Gone” that is imbued with the ecosocialist politics of most of his recent articles. He writes:
On our poor and anything but consumerist island, one would be unable to find enough workers to endure the rigors of the harvest and to care for the sugarcane plantations in the ever more intense heat, rains or droughts. When hurricanes lash the island, not even the best machines can harvest the bent-over and twisted canes. For centuries, the practice of burning sugarcane was unknown and no soil was compacted under the weight of complex machines and enormous trucks. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphate fertilizers, today extremely expensive, did not yet even exist, and the dry and wet months succeeded each other regularly. In modern agriculture, no high yields are possible without crop rotation methods. On Sunday, April 1, the French Press Agency (AFP) published disquieting reports on the subject of climate change, which experts gathered by the United Nations already consider an inevitable phenomenon that will spell serious repercussions for the world in the coming decades. According to a UN report to be approved next week in Brussels, climate change will have a significant impact on the American continent, generating more violent storms and heat waves and causing droughts, the extinction of some species and even hunger in Latin America. The AFP report indicates that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forewarned that at the end of this century, every hemisphere will endure water-related problems and, if governments take no measures in this connection, rising temperatures could increase the risks of mortality, contamination, natural catastrophes and infectious diseases. In Latin America, global warming is already melting glaciers in the Andes and threatening the Amazon forest, whose perimeter may slowly be turned into a savannah, the cable goes on to report. Because a great part of its population lives near the coast, the United States is also vulnerable to extreme natural phenomena, as hurricane Katrina demonstrated in 2005. According to AFP, this is the second of three IPCC reports which began to be published last February, following an initial scientific forecast which established the certainty of climate change.
Instead of publishing the sad, sectarian musings of an obscure college professor like Sam Farber, the IST comrades should wake up to reality and publish these twilight thoughts of Fidel Castro that are sure to be studied one hundred years from now as the best that 21st century socialism had to offer.

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