FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Leninism of Chavez

by CHRIS GILBERT

Caracas.

In the many homages to Hugo Chávez in recent weeks, there is an important element that suffers almost complete neglect. For want of a better term we could call it “Leninism.” By this, of course, I do not mean the tired, formulaic (and basically anti-Leninist) doctrine that generally bears that name. It is precisely the hegemony of that surrogate doctrine, in addition to the intractability of the real one, that drives the neglect and is also behind the mostly conscious attempts to separate Chávez from what passes for Leninism.

Think of it: “The revolution against Capital“! That is how Gramsci understood Lenin’s work; this was Gramsci’s shorthand way of indicating how Lenin and company threw off the evolutionist, progressive consensus of their moment which included the Second International (hence the reference to Capital) and the bourgeois intelligentsia.[1] This was the “end of history” doctrine of the epoch. Fast-forwarding a century, perhaps we can say that the single most important thing that Chávez and the Venezuelan people did from the 1990s onward was to throw off — in a revolutionary, Leninist way, if you will — the “end of history” consensus of our moment, which had infected both left and right.

The parallels with Fidel Castro and the 26 de Julio movement are also evident. By the mid to late 1950s most of the revolutionary fires seemed to be extinguished in the Caribbean region. With Jacobo Árbenz taken down and the liberal guerrilla in Colombia generally brought to bay, U.S. functionaries felt confident they had control over the area, their “backyard”; this situation was complemented by a great deal of confusion and defeatism in the ranks of the left. Then, seeming to come out of nowhere, the rapid advance of the 26 de Julio movement, which culminated in the toppling of Batista and the taking of La Habana in 1959, gave the lie to imperialism’s confidence: yet it also gave the lie to the Soviet version of the end of history, the tendency toward pacific coexistence with the U.S.

Defying Fukuyama as well as Zapatista teachings in the air at the time, Chávez — like Lenin and Fidel — led a movement that took state power, and like them he was saddled with a million problems for doing so. Georg Lukács, in the best homage to Lenin that I know of, refers to his commentary on Napoleon’s saying “On s’engage et puis… on voit“; the Bolsheviks engaged in serious battle in October 1917, and then compromised on “such details as the Brest Peace, the New Economic Policy.”[2] With this reference, Lukács means to identify and characterize the hundreds of pacts, compromises, and concessions that Lenin was forced to make because of the Bolshevik’s taking power: that is, precisely because of their doing the revolution in what can never be perfect circumstances. He differentiates this kind of pact from opportunistic ones that are made with the aim — though purportedly in the name of purity or what have you — of not doing the revolution.

Both before and after taking power, Hugo Chávez made many, many pacts and accords with figures such as Lukashenko, Ahmadineyad, Santos, Miquilena, and (it is commonly believed) even Gustavo Cisneros. The list goes on and includes the most varied powers and people. Since those included range from solid anti-imperialists such as Mahmud Ahmadineyad to the neoliberal businessman Gustavo Cisneros and the tractable social democrat Luis Miquilena, the inevitable question arises over tactics and strategy. What is the strategic line that runs through this most varied gamut of alliances? A similar question can be asked about the many projects that were born and disappeared like night flowers: the Five Motors, the Three Rs, Batalions (of the PSUV), Aló Presidente Teórico… the list goes on.

Much of this appears to be mere fishtailing, and there can be no doubt that in his surprising trajectory Chávez made serious errors — errors which could turn out one day to be fatal to the process in Venezuela, since unfortunately no revolutionary process is irreversible. Perhaps the best explanation of this complex trajectory appears when we look at Chávez’s process of political formation. As a young military officer, Chávez had links to the PRV-Revolutionary Party of Venezuela (in which his brother was a militant) and other left movements. When in prison (after 1992) and even before, Chávez read his way through many Marxist texts, including the most difficult ones. Some of these books came from a collection he bought from a former schoolteacher of his, a communist.

Then, on leaving prison, Chávez entered political life and to a certain extent put his Marxism behind him. To use a spatial metaphor we can say he began scouting the territory for himself or even groping his way around in the dark. We should not forget that in 1998 he was still talking about the Third Way of Anthony Giddens, the now forgotten intellectual fad of the moment! What is most important is that, as the years went by and in response to blows from imperialism and some of his own defeats, Chávez found himself reconnecting with Marxism via his practice and via the activities of the mass movement.

One such moment is, when faced with the plurality of movements in the World Social Forum of 2005 in Porto Alegre, Chávez thought of what could possibly unify all of them in their diversity and declared it to be “socialism”. Another is when, after trying to construct socialism from above with the constitutional reform of 2007, he took a step back and began to think about constructing it on the street level, working with the communes, thereby recovering the Marxist idea of the auto-emancipation of the working class.

Coming back to Lenin, we can observe that he also took steps back and had his moment of putting Marxism (or rather “Marxism”) behind him. Slavoj Zizek’s Repeating Lenin very excellently depicts the crisis Lenin entered into just before and during the First World War: a catastrophe that effectively included the disappearance of his movement.[3] Lenin then re-encountered or reread Marxism though studying Hegel and through the revolutionary process that opened up in Russia in February 1917, which caught him by surprise. This new Lenin was Lenin at his most agile, most “dialectic”; now come events like those of the Finland Station as well as texts like State and Revolution and the April Theses that continue to astound.

C.L.R. James, when in midlife and confronting the postwar taming of the left in his time, tried to unlock the secret of this Lenin, the most authentic Lenin. With the help of Raya Dunayevskaya, James went directly to the Russian text of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks. There he was deeply struck by Lenin’s marginal note to Hegel’s Doctrine of Being: “LEAP, LEAP, LEAP!” Lenin penned in a large script alongside Hegel’s paragraphs, in an attempt to summarize how the new comes into existence.[4] It is this capacity to leap, to overcome the existing order of things — call it the neoliberal consensus, the end of history, economicism, or even pacific coexistence — that is the most important legacy of Lenin and the one that best characterizes Hugo Chávez.

Marxism, like any theory, is susceptible to the processes of fetishism that within capitalism tend to lead to a closed off view of history. Its mainstream tends to pact silently with the fatalism that informs intellectual production beneath capitalism. This can be seen in how perhaps the most brilliant Marxist theorist of the second half of the 20th century, Louis Althusser, tended to allow his discoveries regarding structure and combination in capitalism to slide into accepting the inescapability of those very structures. “Leninism,” then, would be the name for that moment of rupture with capital, and with its theories, and even with the theories critical of capitalism to the degree that they make peace with fatalism.

This is the Leninism of Chávez. It is a firm no to all fatalism, and a commitment to struggle and even muddle one’s way through what appear to be endgame scenarios, with the aim of advancing toward a more just and better society. Marxism, of course, is not a Utopian doctrine in the sense that is does not propose that there is some perfect society and then speculate (impossibly) about how to get there. But it is Utopian in the sense that it teaches that a radically different modernity is not only possible but to some degree latent in the development of the current, capitalist one. Not only that: Marxism says that human beings are not creatures of the hive, but can work towards that alternative modernity’s realization.

In his impressive Golpe de timón speech of five months ago, which constitutes Chávez’s last serious political testament, he recognizes that having done the political revolution, the relevant economic changes and the construction of socialism are still unrealized. Then he adds, “I am not saying this so that we sense overwhelmed or daunted; on the contrary, to encounter new forces before the complexity of the challenge.” I think that in these words — and really throughout the entire remarkable discourse — one perceives an attitude very akin to Lenin’s dogged resistance to reconcile with “what there is.” We could say that this resistance, combined with a perennial disposition to struggle inventively, is the best legacy of Lenin and of Leninists like Chávez — if it were not also a kind of anti-legacy insofar as it refuses to let one live cozily or complacently with it.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

NOTES

This article owes a great deal to conversations with my friend Gabriel Gil, who has insisted on Chávez’s Leninism and helped me to understand many elements of Chávez’s development and practice as a revolutionary.

[1] Antonio Gramsci, “La revolución en contra “El Capital” in Antonio Gramsci: Antología (Siglo XXI, 1970): 34-7.

[2] Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study of the Unity of his Thought.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/1924/lenin/ch06.htm

[3] Slavoj Zizek, Repeating Lenin.

http://www.lacan.com/replenin.htm

[4] C.L.R. James, Notes on Dialectics.

http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/dialecti/james4.htm

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
July 22, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Good as Goldman: Hillary and Wall Street
Joseph E. Lowndes
From Silent Majority to White-Hot Rage: Observations from Cleveland
Paul Street
Political Correctness: Handle with Care
Richard Moser
Actions Express Priorities: 40 Years of Failed Lesser Evil Voting
Eric Draitser
Hillary and Tim Kaine: a Match Made on Wall Street
Conn Hallinan
The Big Boom: Nukes And NATO
Ron Jacobs
Exacerbate the Split in the Ruling Class
Jill Stein
After US Airstrikes Kill 73 in Syria, It’s Time to End Military Assaults that Breed Terrorism
Jack Rasmus
Trump, Trade and Working Class Discontent
John Feffer
Could a Military Coup Happen Here?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Late Night, Wine-Soaked Thoughts on Trump’s Jeremiad
Andrew Levine
Vice Presidents: What Are They Good For?
Michael Lukas
Law, Order, and the Disciplining of Black Bodies at the Republican National Convention
Victor Grossman
Horror News, This Time From Munich
Margaret Kimberley
Gavin Long’s Last Words
Mark Weisbrot
Confidence and the Degradation of Brazil
Brian Cloughley
Boris Johnson: Britain’s Lying Buffoon
Lawrence Reichard
A Global Crossroad
Kevin Schwartz
Beyond 28 Pages: Saudi Arabia and the West
Charles Pierson
The Courage of Kalyn Chapman James
Michael Brenner
Terrorism Redux
Bruce Lerro
Being Inconvenienced While Minding My Own Business: Liberals and the Social Contract Theory of Violence
Mark Dunbar
The Politics of Jeremy Corbyn
David Swanson
Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children
Binoy Kampmark
Laura Ingraham and Trumpism
Uri Avnery
The Great Rift
Nicholas Buccola
What’s the Matter with What Ted Said?
Aidan O'Brien
Thank Allah for Western Democracy, Despondency and Defeat
Joseph Natoli
The Politics of Crazy and Stupid
Sher Ali Khan
Empirocracy
Nauman Sadiq
A House Divided: Turkey’s Failed Coup Plot
Franklin Lamb
A Roadmap for Lebanon to Grant Civil Rights for Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon
Colin Todhunter
Power and the Bomb: Conducting International Relations with the Threat of Mass Murder
Michael Barker
UK Labour’s Rightwing Select Corporate Lobbyist to Oppose Jeremy Corbyn
Graham Peebles
Brexit, Trump and Lots of Anger
Anhvinh Doanvo
Civilian Deaths, Iraq, Syria, ISIS and Drones
Christopher Brauchli
Kansas and the Phantom Voters
Peter Lee
Gavin Long’s Manifesto and the Politics of “Terrorism”
Missy Comley Beattie
An Alarmingly Ignorant Fuck
Robert Koehler
Volatile America
Adam Vogal
Why Black Lives Matter To Me
Raouf Halaby
It Is Not Plagiarism, Y’all
Rev. Jeff Hood
Deliver Us From Babel
Frances Madeson
Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’
Charles R. Larson
Review: Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail