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Today, with President Nicolás Maduro more than one year in office, the situation in Venezuela seems rather bleak for the left. The right-wing opposition believes it’s hot on the trail of a wounded quarry. That is why they conspire in Miami and Washington and why they cleverly combine forms of pacific and violent struggle. Like Lenin in the autumn of 1917 (though with a completely different purpose) these pro-imperialist forces ask the question: Can the post-Chávez government retain state power? Can it last for years or even months? They believe it cannot last long.
Deciding the issue of the government’s longevity is not easy, but what is clear is that the riddle of contemporary Venezuela, for both the political left and right, is unanswerable without appealing to history. One can look squarely in the face of the current political situation, condemn Maduro’s government for its mediocrity, and prescribe ad nauseam that he rectify its course – as do such leftist commentators as Roland Denis and Toby Valderrama – but an understanding of Venezuela’s current quandary requires winding back the clock. This is because the future of the Bolivarian Republic, if that future is socialist, implies not going forward but going back… to a forking of paths that emerged some seven years ago.
The Bolivarian Process is hard to periodize. At first blush, the key watershed appears to be between the Chávez period (1998 to 2013) and the Maduro one (from 2013 forward). In favor of this breakdown, one can enumerate some obvious differences between these two periods. First, the Chávez years were characterized by powerful and innovative leadership, whereas Maduro’s thirteen months show dispersion and vacillation. Second, Chávez advanced with the masses (“talked and acted”), whereas Maduro retreats and negotiates (“merely talks”). Finally, Chávez lobbied for socialism, but Maduro opts at best for a Chinese-style mixed system.
Yet this superficial periodization falls apart in view of the many continuities between Chávez and Maduro. After all, did not the founder of the Bolivarian Process explicitly name Nicolás Maduro as his successor, referring to his “firm, irrevocable and absolute opinion” that the people should elect his second-in-command as the next president? More important, all of those who are now governing in Venezuela (including Diosdado Cabello, Jorge Arreaza, Elías Jaua, and Rafael Ramírez) were long part of Chávez’s team and schooled in his way of doing politics. These continuities lead us to a surprising conclusion: the current political crisis in Venezuela dates not from early 2013 with Maduro entering the presidency, but rather from 2007 when Chávez was apparently at the height of his power.
We should look closely at that crucial moment. In December of 2006, Chávez won his second-term elections (in which he had boldly announced socialism to be his future program) with a sweeping majority. Yet during the upcoming year his government faced serious blows from which its political project would never fully recover. In May of 2007, Chávez made good on his declaration that he would not renew the concession to RCTV, a television station which grouped right-wing commercial and political interests. This brought the middle-class university students out to the streets to protest. Though a new channel (TVES) replaced RCTV as planned, the right-wing emerged from this struggle with renewed confidence and vigor.
This meant that although the opposition had taken a real hit in the summer, it would successfully rally in the fall to defeat Chávez’s constitutional reform, which aimed to provide a legal framework for Bolivarian Socialism. Probably just as important and simultaneous with these external blows, the Chavist movement failed in its effort to develop an organizational structure that would allow it to build socialism hand-in-hand with the masses. That structure might have been the PSUV – the United Socialist Party of Venezuela that Chávez ushered hurriedly into existence in the course of 2007-8 – but it turned out to be an empty form.
A number of factors contributed to this failure, including the vested power of the cadres in Chávez’s existing MVR (Fifth Republic Movement), his military officer’s native distrust of spontaneity, and the chaotic nature of a society in which productive work is scarce. Whatever the reasons, the first PSUV congress in early 2008 saw the then vice-president Jorge Rodríguez squelching internal party democracy with the verticalist slogan: What Chávez says goes! (¡Lo que diga Chávez!). From this point forward the party would be an increasingly hollow giant. Though it includes nearly seven million militants in its registers, the PSUV is barely an electoral apparatus and is far from being the type of party that can take on the construction of socialism.
For the rest of his presidency and life, Chávez acted like an exemplary widow who, though he had been bereaved of the means to carry forward his project, did everything to keep up appearances. To be sure, the late President continued to talk enthusiastically about socialism and even went on making advances in its theorization. Yet without an organizational structure or organic popular movement, his project became increasingly mystified and messianic. Chávez either could not or would not return to the problem that the 2007 crossroads presented to him: how to construct a socialist mass movement.
Maduro inherited this problem and – true to the example of Chávez’s last seven years – he works mainly to maintain appearances. Contrary to what some pessimists believe, it is unlikely that Maduro has lost any significant number of Chávez’s supporters, who may have become more apathetic but have not changed political color. Hence, if hegemony consists of securing first the support of allies and second the passive consent of enemies, it is only the latter that has changed. That is to say, in contrast with Chávez’s years, the Venezuelan opposition today no longer accepts its subordination: it is no longer “neutralized.”
In Maduro’s favor, one might adduce that he seems to be aware of a need to retrace steps and this is shown by his new discourse about “productive forces.” Presumably, a positive outcome of the recent negotiations with the local bourgeoisie is the concerted project to build productive forces in Venezuela that could some day issue into socialism. Hence it might be argued that Maduro is stepping back to create this necessary condition for socialism: “Socialist accumulation.” But the error here is to forget that during the transition to socialism the political must dominate the economic. That is to say, the construction of productive forces (with either a NEP or Chinese model) is senseless in the absence of an organized socialist movement, and this by no means exists in Venezuela.
The real crossroads to which revolutionary Venezuelans must return is the political confrontation with the opposition in 2007. A dilemma which resonates with the confrontations of that year takes place now almost daily in the streets of Venezuela (a bit like an unresolved psychological trauma). The right-wing youth occupies the streets – “resists” in their mock heroic language – and who will remove them? This is the problem that Pepe Mujica recently alluded to, and it is equivalent to the question of who will respond to the “whip of the counterrevolution.” As long as the response comes primarily from the government or the National Guard and not from a socialist movement, there will be no real steps to socialism.
Of course, the question of how to create a modern socialist movement is by no means obvious. Arguably, now that so many parties of the Lenin-Lassalle tradition have run aground, the prospect of socialist organization is just as spectral today as it was in 1848 (when Marx and Engels wrote the famous opening lines of the Communist Manifesto). That is the bad news. The good news is that the left is in a better position than ever to overcome the fetishes that have hamstrung its projects over the years. Indeed, what better context to restore Marxism to its original spirit of creative activism, enemy of dogmas and absolutes, than in the active, vastly innovative processes in Latin America? In this continent, even the fight against the nationalist fetish that has so long beleaguered Marxism has the force of a two-hundred year project called Bolivarian integration.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.