Sunday, 1 July 2007

Venezuela: reform and revolution are not counterposed

(by ANDY NEWMAN, British socialist. Full version here.) I want to agree with Stuart Monckton that this must be seen as a debate among comrades, all of whom are friends of the Venezuelan people, and supporters of the Bolivarian revolution. Indeed that is why it is so important, because we are able to debate within a framework of shared objectives. The SWP/IST position seems to be based upon four underlying propositions: i) Socialist Revolutions are “from below” not “from above” ii) Reform and revolution are distinct and separate projects. iii) Chavez is a radical reformist, because if his position as head of state. iv) Political parties should be ideologically homogenous As a populist slogan encapsulating the idea of mass democratic participation there is nothing wrong with the idea is “socialism from below.” The difficulty is that the categorisation of “from below” and “from above” do not correspond to the way that society is actually structured. The essence of the capitalist mode of production is between wage labourers and capitalists, but the working class develops its own institutions and structures. What is more, capitalist society involves a large number of civil, municipal and state institutions, that mediate both the appearance and reality. Progress towards socialism requires not only a struggle for organisation in communities and workplaces, but also winning hegemony for the left in civil and state institutions. It also involves a struggle within the organisations of the working class to minimise the influence of those who seek accommodation with capitalism. Paradoxes therefore abound, such as the fact that a left leadership may be elected to lead a relatively conservative trade union – as has happened with the Fire Brigades Union in Britain. Or that socialists can find themselves running a small state, both besieged by, and interacting with international capitalism, as has happened in Cuba. Any successful ultimately successful struggle “from below” must also be prepared to pursue and consolidate partial gains “from above” Callinicos actually describes the issue well when he says: “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.” In particular the coup, and the later oil lock out, both stimulated a deepening of social participation in the revolution, “from below”; and also consolidated the position of some of the most radical supporters of the revolution within the state bureaucracy and the military – not least of which Chavez himself. The state machine has not been decisively won to the revolution, but certain important parts of it seem to have been. Chavez has used the state to pursue certain reforms, particularly in the fields of education, health, empowerment of communities to control local radio stations, popular military training, etc. The degree of mass popular participation in and control over these initiatives make them very radical indeed. These reforms are largely unacceptable to the Venezuelan boss class and to the US Empire. However, the ability of the right to overthrow Chavez is very much weakened by their earlier failures, the US commitment in Iraq, and the growing international influence and awareness of the Bolivarian revolution. All the time, the popular reforms are growing bolder, and the stake that ordinary workers and peasants have in their society is growing deeper. The revolution can only be totally consolidated when the economic and political power of the boss class is eliminated, but postponing that task is not the same as avoiding it. It can be very important, As Trotsky argues in the “History of the Russian Revolution”, that the working class participate in removing the power of the bosses as a defensive struggle to defend the gains they have made. In this way, we can see that reform and revolution are not counterposed, but that revolution is a decisive culmination of a process of uncompromising reform. This then transcends the distinction between “from below” and “from above”, as in decisively removing state and economic power from the hands of the boss class, the working class and peasantry must seize the state, incorporating those parts of the state machine already sympathetic to them, and then building links with progressive governments and mass movements abroad. If reform and revolution are not necessarily counterposed processes then neither is there a necessary distinction between revolutionary and reformist consciousness. Socialist activists who are conscious of their class interest can debate and develop together the strategies necessary for facing the real practical problems that the movement throws up. Only at the point where there is a decisive show down with the capitalist class does “revolutionary” leadership become relevant. Chavez himself is a revolutionary leader, because at each stage where there has been a fork in the road he has taken the option most in the interests of the working people, and he has not been afraid to exacerbate the tension with the boss class, nor with the US Empire. Whether or not the project ultimately succeeds will depend on the organisation, political development and ability of the Venezuelan workers and peasants, but it is also linked to the international progressive movement, including the Cuban and Bolivian governments, buying time and space for the revolution to develop. This has an important relevance to the question of the PSUV (the united socialist party in Venezuela). If revolution is the culmination of a process of reform, then revolutionary and reformist consciousness are not necessarily discrete categories. Reformist workers can be won to revolution, and we have also seen through history how soi-dissant “revolutionary organisations” can fail to deliver. There is therefore no reason why all groups committed to the revolution should not participate in a single party, and jointly debate and decide at each stage how to solve the practical problems that they encounter. It is by the way a bit disingenuous for Chris Harman to refer dismissively of the comrades among the Chávista ranks who look to Cuba. Through a slight of hand Harman associates them with those in the Cuban CP arguing for the Chinese path of restoring capitalism, in fact the alliance with Venezuela involves that part of the Cuban CP – including Raul and Fidel Castro – most opposed to the Chinese model, and the interaction with Venezuela, including the presence in Venezuela of thousands of Cuban doctors and specialists, is strengthening democratic forces within Cuba, and opens the possibility of an end to those negative aspects of Cuban society mainly or partly attributable to the American siege, and those mainly or partly attributable to importing ideas and structures from the USSR. The Venezuelan revolution, the first mass popular movement towards socialism to develop since the end of the cold war and the influence of the USSR, is causing all of us to acknowledge that the wisdom we have learned from books is inadequate to understand and support the real living process of socialism. The participation of the SWP and the IST in that debate, especially in the context of the solidarity they have already shown with Venezuela, is entirely welcome.

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