Last Friday Chris Gilbert wrote an article for CounterPunch titled The Chávez Hypothesis: Vicissitudes of a Strategic Project that like many I have read since 1999 try to put the late President into a Marxist context, in this instance claiming that “Hugo Chávez was an heir to Lenin’s political legacy.” Before replying to Gilbert, it might be useful to mention other attempts to ground the Bolivarian revolution in one strand of Marxism or another.
In the September 2011 issue of Dialectical Anthropology, Steve Ellner posed the question of whether the process of change in Venezuela resembled a “Permanent Revolution”. After reviewing five distinct stages of the process, Ellner asserts that “the sequence of events and the strategy that influenced them recall the concept of permanent revolution espoused by Leon Trotsky”. Like many other Marxists who have weighed in on post-Chávez Venezuela, there is little evidence that Ellner still expects Venezuela to have its own version of October 1917 any time soon, especially since the native versions of Kerensky and Kornilov have the upper hand.
Michael Lebowitz has written a number of books making connections between the process in Venezuela and what some might consider a Marxism influenced by István Mészáros, including one I reviewed for CounterPunch in August 2015 . In that article, I made a point that I will repeat later on in this article, namely that Venezuela’s woes today have much to do with its entanglement in global capitalist property relations. Even with the best of intentions and inspired by the best Marxism has to offer from either Lebowitz or Mészáros, there were objective constraints that made a socialist Venezuela very difficult if not impossible to attain.
Many on the left, including Jeffery Webber whose new book The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left I reviewed for CounterPunch last month, dismiss Venezuela as a failed populist but neo-liberal experiment. They too hearken back to Marxist theory but mainly as a yardstick with which to measure (or spank) the “pink tide” governments for abandoning Marxist principles. Perhaps if Hugo Chávez had been reading Jeffery Webber rather than István Mészáros, the situation would not be so bleak. (Needless to say, when you are dealing with tenured professors, the emphasis is on reading.)
Last but not least we have George Cicariello-Maher, who like Gilbert invokes Lenin to help us understand the process in Venezuela. Cicariello-Maher is passionately devoted to the communes in Venezuela that pose a “dual power” threat to the capitalist state just as the soviets did in 1917. It is a bit complicated when you consider that the millions of dollars that have helped to get the communes off the ground in Venezuela came from that very capitalist state.
Turning now to Chris Gilbert’s essay, it is an homage to Chávez at a moment when ultraleft sectarians are blaming his policies for the current crisis. Gilbert’s focus is not on the economic woes of the country that some leftists attribute to the Bolivarian revolution’s failure to transcend its status as an oil rentier state or its adoption of a two-tiered currency model that led to runaway inflation but on Chávez’s political acumen in pursuing a single-minded strategic orientation as a latter-day Lenin.
Gilbert invokes Lars Lih’s biography of Lenin, a work whose insights supposedly will help us better appreciate Chávez. Paraphrasing Lih, he concludes that Lenin’s singular strategic insight was to build a party modeled on the German Social Democracy but adapted to the authoritarian conditions of Czarist Russia. Far be it for me to impose my definitions on anybody else on the left, but strategy means something different to me. I see Lenin’s central strategic goal as the establishment of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”, which meant that Russia would undergo a bourgeois revolution but commanded by a working-class government rather than one dominated by the liberal bourgeoisie. After a prolonged period of capitalist development, the workers would be sufficiently organized and massive enough to steer the nation toward socialism. Most people on the left except for Lih believe that Lenin abandoned this perspective in the April Theses, especially since he specifically said that it no longer applied. After all, when workers take power, why would they waste time with any form of capitalism, especially since it is their mortal enemy?
Does any of this ancient history have much to do with Venezuela? In a way it does, especially how it relates to Ellner’s 2011 article. The Russian revolution began in February 1917 and culminated in the seizure of power within 8 months. In Lenin’s original strategic formula, it was conceivable that a Kerensky-type government would have lasted for decades giving workers the time they needed to become as powerful as the German Social Democracy. In fact, that is what Lev Kamenev, Lars Lih’s favorite Bolshevik next to Lenin, hoped for. Would Czarist General Kornilov, a forerunner to Hitler, have permitted a government to remain in power for decades that tried to balance capitalist and socialist property relations? You might as well expect the Venezuelan oligarchy to put up with a Bolivarian revolution indefinitely even if it eschewed Bolshevik goals. As soon as political subversion and economic sabotage softened up government of Venezuela sufficiently, the oligarchy would strike the lethal blow either by a coup or by a vote. And then we might expect an authoritarian onslaught led by a Venezuelan Kornilov that will return to the status quo ante but in rivers of blood.
For Gilbert, there was no need for Chávez to proceed as rapidly as Lenin did in 1917. He was not a “textbook Marxist [who] would have stuck with a more familiar, barebones lexicon that focused on class, the taking of power, and the destruction of the bourgeois state.” Of course, that sounds a bit like Lenin who wrote a book titled “State and Revolution” that was all about the destruction of the bourgeois state—but then again that was so 20th century socialism.
Proceeding to the conclusion of Gilbert’s article, we arrive at what might be regarded as the most widely held confirmation of Chávez’s Marxism, namely the Venezuelan commune. The commune was introduced in 2006 as the latest in a series of measures that would provide a mass base for the government among the disenfranchised masses who had the most to gain from the Bolivarian revolution even if the communes were formally independent. Before the communes, there were Bolivarian circles that were focused more on self-defense than collective production.
While the term commune suggests radical politics, there are instances in which it mainly serves as a economic/military unit of a reactionary state such as the Israeli kibbutz whose Labor Zionist founders mistakenly associated with socialism. Communes have often been adopted by a religious sect like the Hutterites in the USA who have penetrated Blackfoot Indian territory in Montana in a fashion reminiscent of the Israeli kibbutz.
The most famous commune of course was the Paris Commune that was simply the municipal government that came into being during the French Revolution in contrast to Chávez creating the communes as an alternative to the corrupt municipal governments of Venezuela. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1871, the municipal government was effectively commandeered by the working class in order to defend the city against the German army. Once in power, the workers acted in their own class interests for the first time in history.
Subsequent to the Paris Commune, the Russian soviets were the next major bid by workers to exercise state power. Like the Paris Commune, the soviet was midwifed by a revolution that grew out of a capitalist war, in this instance the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. As this bloodletting put a strain on factory workers, they decided to form a council (soviet) that would challenge the Czarist state. Leon Trotsky described their dynamic in his book 1905 that was written two years later:
The Soviet came into being as a response to an objective need – a need born of the course of events. It was an organization which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self control – and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty-four hours.
It was these soviets that would reemerge in 1917 as part of the “dual power” in Russia that would ultimately become the single power of the new Soviet state. As was the case with the Paris Commune, the capitalist class used terror to destroy the infant state and largely succeeded. In State and Revolution, Lenin explained why the workers needed to smash the existing state and create one based on their own collective governance such as the Paris Commune or the Soviet:
Another reason why the omnipotence of “wealth” is more certain in a democratic republic is that it does not depend on defects in the political machinery or on the faulty political shell of capitalism. A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell…, it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.
Establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it? That sounds rather like the USA, doesn’t it? It also poses the question of the relationship between the Venezuelan commune and the state that brought it into being. Unlike the Paris Commune or the Soviet, it was fostered by the Chavista state to the tune of $436 million dollars as Michael Fox reported in Venezuela Analysis on November 28, 2006. Naturally, those benefitting from such largesse would not consider the benefactor to be the class enemy. Maybe ineffective and often corrupt but the real enemy was the class behind the 2002 coup attempt. The problem, of course, is that the government was trying to balance class interests as part of a long-term strategy of national development that was consistent ironically with pre-1917 Bolshevik thinking. Since Maduro, a former bus driver and trade union leader, was overseeing capitalist development in Venezuela, wasn’t he the prototype of Lenin’s pre-1917 strategic thinking?
While Gilbert saw the commune as the primary building block of a future socialist society, he is forced to admit that it has not lived up to expectations:
In the years that followed, the communal hypothesis ran up against serious obstacles, failing to produce the desired results, despite the more than one thousand communes that have been registered and despite the government’s extensive promotion of the idea. As far as concrete results are concerned, a handful of flagship communes may have come to form small enclaves of socialism, but the communes have generally proven precarious and even unsustainable in the capitalist context still dominant in Venezuela’s economy.
The “capitalist context” is the fly in the ointment. Ultimately, Gilbert must come to terms with the failure of the communes to become the embryo of a new state as long as the existing capitalist state has control over the major means of production and distribution. In effect, he urges that a new strategy be put into place that is a synthesis of 20th century socialism (one that is “focused on class, the taking of power, and the destruction of the bourgeois state”) and the Chavista 21th century socialism based on the horizontalist commune structures. He writes:
In this sense – and this is the modification to Chávez’s communal hypothesis that I propose – there needs to be a dialectical synthesis of, on the one hand, the traditional Marxist concept of a state power that makes a forceful rupture with the existing order of things and the grassroots communal projects that Chávez promoted, on the other. The remade state power would be charged with fostering the socialist enclaves, stacking the deck in their favor.
As I have been mulling over Webber’s book, Gilbert’s article and a number of articles I have read to help prepare this article, a way of looking at these problems of socialist strategy came to me. To an extent, I approach these problems as someone heavily invested in the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s that like the Bolivarian revolution and just about every revolution of the past 100 years has failed to live up to the sublime vision I shared with other Marxists 50 years ago when I came into the movement. Taking its sexism into account, Leon Trotsky’s 1934 “If America Should Go Communist” sounded a bit like “Big Rock Candy Mountain”: “The average man doesn’t like systems or generalities either. It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”
What Trotsky did not anticipate was the failure of countries like the USA, England, Germany or France to make socialist revolutions for a combination of reasons, mostly having to do with the lack of a revolutionary party. For the Trotskyists, this has boiled down to the failure of the working class to become attracted to their movement. This was an understandable result of their inability to break out of a sectarian framework based on a dogmatic misunderstanding of Lenin’s party. Whatever mistakes were made in Venezuela, the adroit initiatives taken by the country’s left, especially Causa R, in becoming an important wing of the Chavista movement are much more worthy of study than any Trotskyist tract.
Instead the revolutions have come to weak, peripheral nations such as Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua and even to Venezuela in an embryonic form. In the case of Venezuela, there is a strong temptation for someone like Chris Gilbert to call for a “forceful rupture” but such a rupture would mark Venezuela as a threat to the global capitalist order and worthy of boycotts, CIA subversion much greater than anything the country is facing today, as well as counter-revolutionary armies that would have an all-too-willing host in Colombia.
In 1986, when I got involved in Nicaragua solidarity, the Soviet Union existed. The main obstacle to peace and development in Nicaragua was the Reagan administration. Perhaps George W. Bush might have been less of a warmongering bastard than Reagan in the early 2000s but if I were Hugo Chávez, I’d probably not have taken a chance on that. Furthermore, there were social democratic governments across Europe that were even more willing than the Soviets to provide Nicaragua technical, financial and diplomatic aid. Keep in mind that Daniel Ortega and Francois Mitterand were both members of the Socialist international. Today the socialist governments are run by neoliberals like François Hollande and we have a Russia led by Vladimir Putin who regards Lenin as the worst thing that ever happened to his country. Meanwhile, China, the BRICS giant that many on the left regard as the ultimate challenge to US imperialism, will no longer lend money to Venezuela.
Everybody was for a socialist Venezuela or a socialist Greece but when it failed to materialize, the knives came out. Maduro and Tsipras become traitors to the cause. When I first got on the Internet in the early 90s, I used to hear sectarians lambasting the FSLN for not being revolutionary enough. I told them that they were quite right. Daniel Ortega should have invaded the USA in 1986 and beheaded the serpent in its nest.
Just by coincidence, I stumbled across a new blog today titled Cold and Dark Stars that is the voice of someone who describes himself or herself as an immigrant from an underdeveloped country in Canada. With piquant humor, the author identifies the search for traitors on the left in an article titled The Global Economy Doesn’t Care About Your Local Chicken Farm that I agree with totally. My suggestion is to read this article and bookmark this most auspicious new blog that offers such keen insights:
Once, an economist friend told me that they have a term for quacks, and its called “marxism.” Indeed, a common rightist trope is that leftists don’t understand the economy. The social programs leftists advocate, such as public housing, life stipends, and universal healthcare, are deemed as economically unsustainable.
I do think there’s some truth in this. Leftists are so obsessed with winning elections and taking power at all costs within the confines of the nation-state that they become blind to global economic forces. Perhaps the starkest, recent example of this phenomenon was the failure of Syriza at Greece. Syriza was an outspoken anticapitalist party, with many of the groups forming the coalition having the sort of leftist pedigree that exist only in the fringe in the rest of the developed world. They ran on an anti-austerity campaign and they won the national elections in 2015. What happened next? In the face of imminent financial doom, Syriza ended doubling down on austerity. In the Greek case, groups that had “communist” in their name ended up as managers of capitalist crisis, delivering the unadulterated program of neoliberalism, a platform that will leave old people dying penniless, and young people unemployed, sick without access to life-or-death medication.
Simpleminded analysis will find Syriza as traitorous. The harder wings of the left will say that Syriza was doomed since the beginning, since revolution is not a matter of simple electoral victory. Yet, even the hardest of the hard lefts, with the most ambitious programs for economic and social restructuring, will have faced similar dilemmas. That is because capitalism is a global system. The basic goods that sustain any nation-state are the product of a division of labor and a logistical network that spans the whole globe – minerals that are used in electronics are mined in Africa, hydrocarbons that power the factories that make vaccines are extracted from Canadian ground. This gives rise to a global economy that uses the abstractions of stocks, bonds, debt, and currency to mediate the distribution of technology, labor time, and natural resources necessary to sustain any sovereign nation-state. The rules of this global economy are studied by mainstream economists, rules that the Right claims the Left doesn’t understand. Any national, left wing movement will inevitably face off the blind, idiot god of international capital, and most certainly, be consumed by it.