Tuesday 8 January 2008

"How to do the revolution better": a critique of the British SWP on Venezuela

(We reprint the article below by Phil Cournoyer as a very interesting contribution to the ongoing debate about the way forward for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, and how revolutionaries should behave towards broad radical parties and movements. Socialist Worker - New Zealand feels that this article hits the nail on the head by tying the two themes together, though we do not necessarily endorse all its statements and political formulations.)
Posing straw questions usually leads nowhere
The article { Lessons from Venezuela's referendum } appearing in the current edition of International Socialism Issue: 117 is not signed and hence appears to have the status of an editorial from the leadership of the British Socialist Workers Party, the axial hub of the International Socialists current.
I read it hoping to learn something about Venezuela that is not common knowledge among activists in the international solidarity movement with the Bolivarian revolution and the anti-imperialist alliance whose flagships are ALBA and PetroCaribe.
Unfortunately, that did not happen.
On other questions, such as the imperialist offensive against the Muslim world, I have found the publication to be very acute and in some ways an indispensable source of analysis on the Eastern Mediterranean and Iraq-Iran-Palestine struggle. Likewise, it is difficult to appreciate and understand the evolution and current stage of the international antiwar movement without following the information and analysis provided by the SWP UK.
When it comes to Latin America, it seems that the comrades need to send a delegation to a few of the countries they write about and do some on the ground interviews with key activists.
The editorial article makes some good overall points; a similar description of some physical process or phenomenon would have to be described as very course-grained. That’s how satellite shots taken from very distant orbits appear on a cloudless day – vital detail is lost in the coarse-graining involved, but it could be captured from a lower altitude. The level of fine or course graining needed, of course, depends on the purpose of the exercise. The authors of the SW editorial have no influence in Venezuela or for that matter in most of Latin America, but they do influence significance forces in the British left. The article is written for them for reasons I will suggest below.
What strikes me most is its wooden tone and spirit. It does not appear to be written by someone with a passionate identification with Venezuela in its showdown with the empire and its allies and agents within the Venezuelan political and economic system.
We are led through a series of admonishments about how to do the revolution better, and then into author’s main concern, it seems – to convince readers that the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is an obstacle to the advance of the mass movement in Venezuela. The author affirms that
“The [referendum] defeat was the outcome of relying on a top down approach which introduced some reforms but left intact the capitalist economy and the main parts of the machinery of the state. More defeats will follow unless the movement from below develops structures of its own capable of acting independently of the presidential palace.
“We have insisted before [ see http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=368 ] that the PSUV is not such a structure. Established by presidential edict from the top down, it includes, alongside hundreds of thousands of dedicated activists, a good number of corrupt bureaucrats, refugees from the pre-Chavista parties who still exist at every level of the state apparatus, people who dream of an authoritarian Cuban model, and even some capitalists who profit from their Chavista connections. If it failed to motivate nearly a fifth of its members to vote in the referendum, it is certainly not a tool for carrying through a real revolution or even combating counter-revolution…”
“At best,” we are told, the PSUV “can provide a debating forum out of which can emerge a real revolutionary current—and then only if the leadership allows freer debate than hitherto.”
This editorial is clearly not aimed at the broad solidarity movement. Many solidarity activists have travelled to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and many more follow the events there closely via many good websites. Most such activists would easily see through the shallow line being set forth. It seems, rather, to be written as part of an effort to shore up support for, or indifference to, a sectarian and ultra left line on Venezuela being promoted by the central leadership of the British SWP. The general British political culture of insularism and indifference to Latin American affairs that affects broad sectors of the British left, with some commendable exceptions, is a likely source of the erroneous approach taken by the author or authors. Dismissal of the leadership of the Cuban revolution is another source because that is a symptom of an essentially Eurocentric judgmental stance of analyzing struggles from a distance of oceans and continents, and delivery tactical advice carrying with it a high risk of error or irrelevance. That attitude is reinforced and sustained, IMHO, by the jaded atmosphere of the British and Scottish campus where many of the Marxist academics responsible for growing “analyses” spend their lives.
Hence, the editorial article offers another serving of yesterday’s supper – the false counterpoising of “leading from above” against “leading from below.” This error is old hat for the Marxist movement, a position that Lenin, among others politicized against.
Saddled with that hat, we are walked through an argument that not only writes off the mass party of the revolution, the PSUV, but also the Venezuelan army.
"One of the most dangerous myths surrounding Venezuela is the one spread in books and articles by Marta Harnecker, Diane Raby and others that its military officers are different to those elsewhere in Latin America. It is even claimed that it was the army, not the mass movement, that saved Chavez in 2002. That myth received a serious blow weeks before the referendum when the officer who had been portrayed by official Chavismo as the “hero” of 2002 , Raúl Baduel, turned against Chavez only weeks after resigning as minister of defence. There will be many others still on active service who share the upper middle class’s hatred of Chavez. No doubt the Venezuelan rich and their allies in the CIA will seize any opportunity to begin organising them."
This single paragraph is replete with errors, both through false insinuation about the views of Marta Harnecker and Diane Raby about the character of the Venezuelan army high command, and through dismissal of well known historical and current facts.
The fact is that the April 2002 coup provoked a split in the army officer corp. Neither Harnecker nor Raby argue that the army alone, and not the mass movement, saved Chávez. Clearly the key was the mass uprising, but without the split that occurred in the army that movement could and likely would have been drowned in blood, and the authors of the massacre applauded as heroes by Washington, as was Pinochet in his time. Hence, the coup was defeated by a combined effort of mass mobilization and action of Bolivarian leaders in the army. That history evidenced the positive achievement of years of clandestine political work in the armed forces by Hugo Chávez and his movement. Further evidence of that is the fact that Baduel’s appeal to the army to oust Chávez during the last stages of the referendum debate went unheeded.
The Venezuelan military high command is not monolithic. But it is not the same kettle of fish as the army in Brazil or Colombia – to mention only two neighboring countries. The Colombian army is steeled in a permanent war against the revolutionary left, the campesinos, and the urban labor movement. It is organically tied, at the level of the officer corps, with the drug lords and trafficking.
Can we attribute to the Venezuelan army even a drop of that reactionary mix? It seems that some do in Britain.
Harnecker and Raby, were they at all interested in replying to the International Socialism article, would have a field day replete with a picnic. They would be in their full right to turn the question back. Do the editors of International Socialism (UK) say that the two country’s armies are but peas in a pod, serving the same bourgeois interests, but of different nationality? Do the editors of the London publication really believe that it was only the mass movement, and not also a decisive component of the army high command, that saved Chávez?
Someone with an intimate knowledge of how Chávez’s life was saved and how he regained the Presidency – Fidel Castro – has written conclusively on this issue; and he comes down on the side of Harnecker and Raby, and many others on that issue. Castro’s testimony is especially relevant because he and other leaders of the Cuban Communist Party played an important role in enabling the forces opposed to the coup to communicate with one another, and to recognize a favorable relationship of forces for them in their resolve to smash the coup.
The editorial’s argument hinges on posing of straw questions and argument from abstractions; and it falsely counterpoises rigid either-or propositions such as the pitting a from below strategy against an only from above strategy – allegedly held and pursued by Hugo Chávez and his closest allies in the leadership. This formalism blinds the editorialist from seeing the complex reality of the PSUV. Hugo Chávez launched this party to mobilize the ranks against the state bureaucracy and the careerists who have surrounded him from the beginning of the Bolivarian government in 1998. This he states openly in a myriad of ways. Broad layers of the grassroots of the party also see that as one of its principal goals – to isolate the parasitic elements and melt them down under the heat of a mass movement. But Chávez and thousands of the best Bolivarian militants in the PSUV see the party also as a crucible for forging revolutionary unity, for drawing together the best of the broad vanguard in the country around a clear, anti-imperialist and anti-imperialist program.
It is true that much remains to be done to achieve that goal, but abandoning the PSUV to draw together the many, many activists who are beginning to see that the reformist road of socialism from above is not a viable option” is a recipe for ultra left abstention from the real arena of struggle, and pure unadulterated Viagra for hand-on political self-gratification.
This editorial may convince the already convinced in the SWP ranks to maintain their distance from the Bolivarian revolution, and to stand aside from efforts in Britain to build ongoing solidarity with Venezuela, with the ALBA, and with revolutionary Cuba. However, it is unlikely to convince anyone else.
From the point of view of the British ultra left alphabet soup, the editorial adds to their arsenal of arguments for maintaining hostility to Bolivarianism and to the Cuban communist leadership. Although they despise the UK SWP for all the wrong reasons – because it does not advance ultra left policies for British politics, for building the antiwar movement, or for defending immigrants of Islamic faith from ruling class campaigns to stir up Islamophobic campaigns. But the SW editorial on the Venezuelan Referendum is or to their mill because its approach and methodology, if applied to struggle elsewhere in the world, including Britain, would tilt the organization radically and set in down an ultra left, sectarian path not much different from the course of anti-Chavistas in the Venezuelan far left who are implementing it. And the editorial will be a boost to the sectarian left, helping them to make sure none of their folks are taken in by “people who dream of an authoritarian Cuban model” for Venezuela.
Despite many differences on the fine points, they march to a common drummer who keeps them in step in pursuit of the fetish of the WORD – sure in the conviction that without THE WORD (theirs, of course) nothing can be achieved down there on the southern shores of the Pirate’s Sea.
I don’t think the British SWP leadership really want to go down that road, but there’s time and room enough to pull back and about face, and throw its energies into the Bolivarian process in Indo-Afro-Latin America and the Caribbean.
Phil Stuart Cournoyer
Venezuela's referendum
Lessons from Venezuela's referendum
International Socialism
Posted: 18 December 07


Tina Reilly said...

There was some rather succinct analysis of Chavez in the correspondence
pages of last year's Workers Charter. One correspondent came up with the
useful term "left wing colonel-ism" to describe those who seek out
short-cuts to socialism by way of Presidential army officers. It's pretty
basic politics, isn't it, that we trust the masses on the ground, not the
politicians in the palace - no matter how well-intentioned or
Marxist-sounding the politicians may appear? I don't know how the SW here
failed to appreciate that. The following piece appeared in last week's New

On 2 January, a month on from his defeat in a referendum about a
socialist reform of the county's constitution, President Hugo Chávez
Frías of Venezuela performed a stunning political U-turn.
In typically flamboyant style, he made a surprise call to Venezolana
de Televisión, the country's main state-owned TV channel, "to drop a
'bombita' (small bomb)" on an unsuspecting public: He had decided to
abandon his socialist agenda "for now" in order to form stronger
alliances with the country's middle classes, its private sector and
the national bourgeoisie instead.
To dispel any doubts about his seriousness in adopting this new
political course, he replaced vice-president, Dr Jorge Rodríguez - the
public face of his campaign for "21st century socialism" in Venezuela
- with Ramón Carrizales, a military officer and technocrat, known for
his good relationships with the country's business sector.
Perhaps more significantly still, Chávez had already signed an
end-of-the year amnesty for imprisoned perpetrators of a right-wing
coup attempt against him in 2002.
Two days later, on his Sunday TV show "Aló Presidente" (Hallo,
President), Chávez presented his fully reshuffled new cabinet and set
out to explain the rationale for his action. His socialist project had
been defeated, because the country had not been ready for such a
radical approach.
The only democratic response was to acknowledge defeat and to adopt a
more gradual and inclusive way forward. Apart from broadening
alliances to bring private business and the middle classes back into
the fold, this would also mean a more careful focus on mass education
and communal self-organisation. Socialism had not been abandoned, but
postponed, although, by the sound of things, for quite some time to
Chávez' analysis of the current situation certainly has the pleasant
ring of reasonableness to it. There also is little doubt, even amongst
the most fervent socialists in Venezuela, that the agenda for "21st
socialism", adopted in January 2007 as abruptly as it has now been
abandoned, had been rushed in with too much haste, limiting space and
time for public consultation and debate of often complex issues.
Yet, the solidity of this analysis stands and falls with the
correctness of its main premise - that the failure of voters to
approve the constitutional reform project in the referendum of 2
December was a vote against socialism. This is much less clear.
What is clear is that the defeat of Chávez' reform project at the
polls is down to the abstention of roughly three million voters, who
only a year earlier had voted for him as their president on the same
socialist platform.
Compared to the December 2006 presidential elections, the opposition
did not gain any votes. It seems unlikely such a substantial bloc of
Chávez supporters should have been deterred merely by deficient
campaigning a year after enthusiastically endorsing him.
In fact, a closer look at electoral patterns reveals a clear protest
vote, not against a socialist agenda, but against corrupt
administrations, at the national and the regional level.
To understand, where this protest vote came from and why it outweighed
the pro-Chavez and pro-socialism vote, it helps to remember that
Venezuela is defined by only one thing - oil.
For almost a century, the state has been a gigantic machine to
distribute oil rent. In this context, left and right have a rather
different meaning from their usual connotations.
On one side of a profound societal divide, there are those who benefit
from oil from the very rich elites down to middle-rank state employees
with comfortable pension arrangements.
On the other side, there are those who are excluded from a share in
this bounty, the poor and the lower middle classes.
Not surprisingly, the main objective of the "insiders" is to defend
and expand their share in the country's oil wealth. Those on the
outside divide into the small group with some chance of eventually
making it to the inside, and the much larger group of people without
any realistic chance of ever getting there.
The latter are, or used to be, core Chávez supporters: Their only hope
is structural reform that dismantles the distributive rent state and
replaces it by a productive developmental state. Until now, they had
set their hopes on Chávez.
That these hopes have been rattled, is only marginally to do with a
hasty referendum campaign, or with the people's ideological
On the contrary, one of the most impressive achievements of Chavismo
is precisely the very high degree of political awareness and education
amongst the poor.
No, the vote outcome has everything to do with the accession of many a
Chavista to the rank of "insider" over the past eight years. This
process has been gradual, and perhaps inevitable in a society in which
institutionalised rentier-mechanisms have been endemic for decades.
But the contradiction between a radical socialist government agenda
and the "Chavista elite", bent on defending its share in the oil rent,
effectively came to a head last year.
Far from being a left-wing administration, the bulk of ministerial
positions in the old cabinet, as well as many governorships, remained
in the hands of the "Chavista right", or "new insiders".
For example, the new vice-president, Ramón Carrizales, is also
ex-minister of Housing, a core social policy ministry.
All through 2007, the battle between this "Chavista elite" and the
"Chavista street" was fought out within government, with the so-called
left-wingers, led by Jorge Rodríguez, in the minority.
It is an open secret in Venezuela that many governors, while publicly
campaigning for a 'yes' vote in the referendum, used their resources
to mobilise for the no-vote behind the scenes.
Equally an open secret is the sudden destabilisation of the economy
through food shortages and an escalating black market dollar exchange
rate which was at least allowed to linger on for longer than
So the Chávez U-turn looks a lot less radical. For one, the new
cabinet resembles its predecessor more than it differs from it. More
importantly, it is not at all obvious the strategy of a shift to the
"right" will help to pacify the country and stabilize the economy.
Why? Well if it is correct that the result of 2 December was
essentially a protest vote by the "Chavista street" against the
"Chavista elite", then giving the latter free range is unlikely to
boost Chávez with the popular base.
Yet, this popular base is all that stands between him and a 'soft
coup' by an emboldened middle class, made up of the "Chavista elite",
the largely a-political state bureaucracy and moderate such as
ex-General Raúl Baduel, a former ally and defence minister who joined
the opposition ranks in November 2007.
After all, with the control over the country's state apparatus and
economic resources firmly in the hands of these groups, and a weakened
popular base for Chávez, perhaps unable to deliver election future
victories, why would the middle classes and their allies in the new
and old elites still need Chávez?
Chávez is too much of a seasoned politician not to know this. If he
still has chosen this course, it is not necessarily because it is of
his liking or even of his making alone. It simply reflects the real
distribution of power on the ground. His most important response is
not the much publicized government reshuffle, but his decision to
accelerate the organisation of a Chavista mass party, the United
Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
The task of getting this new mass party up to speed is an uphill one,
especially with a "Chavista" government in place that has no interest
in promoting such a move, and the popular base alienated.
But unless Chávez - and the PSUV - win the regional and municipal
elections scheduled for November 2008, Venezuela might well have a new
president before the year is out.

Daphne said...

Yes, I remember those snide one-liners. Making up a catchy cliché to describe Chávez, on the other hand, can't magic away the fact that he is recognized by the overwhelming mass of the Venezuelan working class as the leader of their movement. I guess Socialist Worker fails to appreciate the usefulness of writing off a revolutionary process (in the sense of the masses awakening and becoming conscious of their power) which doesn't conform to our pre-existing idea of what a revolution looks like.

Whether you agree with his strategy or tactics, the fact remains that the Venezuelan masses are in motion; they overwhelmingly recognize Hugo Chávez as their leader; and that the PSUV which he founded is where it is at for serious radicals at the moment.

Broad Left editor said...

Yes, the British SWP tend to have a very negative line on Venezuela and do not prioritise it.

However, there is a growing culture of solidarity with Latin America in Britain - as was shown by the broad support for the Latin America 2007 Conference - see http://britishbroadleft.blogspot.com/2007/12/hundreds-line-up-beside-latin-america.html

Tina Reilly said...

Sure, there is a popular wave of working class action in Venezuela and it's
inspirational. At the same time the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez heads a
bureaucratic state riddled with corruption and repression. He presides over
an economy in which capitalist social relations still predominate.

Faced with the hostility of Washington and the Venezuelan ruling class,
Chavez and his presidential colleagues have attempted to strengthen control
over the state apparatus. First, there's been the creation of a mass
pro-government party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), a
top-down initiative intended to channel popular support. Then there was the
referendum of proposed constitutional changes which offering important
welfare reforms but also allowed Chavez to stand for re-election

The referendum was lost following a mass abstention.

The abstention was essentially a protest vote of the working class against
the presidential elite.

Discontent at food shortages, inflation, and corruption led a large section
of Chavez's base to stay away from the polls.

Chavez now promises to address these problems by slowing down the
revolutionary process.

Will this succeed?

Should the left be an uncritical cheer squad for George Galloway, Matt
McCarten, Peter Sharples, Hugo Chavez?

Are doubts in this direction premature anti-counter-revolutionism?

So many questions.