Developmentalism Versus Ecosocialism

A conversation and interview with Livio Rangel and Joel Kovel

by Quincy Saul, May 6, 2015, Harlem, NY

This is a transcript of a conversation between two ancestors: Livio Rangel (LR), from the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, a lifelong organizer and educator in indigenous and campesino communities, and Joel Kovel (JK), from the USA, co-author of the Ecosocialist Manifesto, and for decades an exponent of ecosocialism around the world. Joel Kovel passed away in 2018, Livio Rangel in 2023. This conversation was a meeting of minds, or as they say in Venezuela, “un encuentro de saberes,” – an encounter of knowledges and ways of knowing. Joel saw a vision of ecosocialist revolution from New York City, the capital of capitalism, and Livio came to us with an experience of ecosocialism from the jungles of the Amazonas to the mountains of the Andes. Quincy Saul (QS) is an organizer with Ecosocialist Horizons who brought these two men together in search of a synthesis, seeking to build a partnership in the belly of the beast with the revolutionary ecosocialist movements of the global South. Their conversation ends like their lives – abruptly, leaving us wanting and needing more, and compelling us to find it for ourselves, where the sun is always rising, on the ecosocialist horizon.

QS: It’s very difficult and maybe impossible for most people outside the country to know exactly what’s happening Venezuela today. There’s a Left media that defends the government, and a Right media that demonizes it. But either way, we don’t learn much. So we may know that there’s a ministry of Ecosocialism, but we don’t know about Trueke, or about the Guardians of Seeds. And now there is an economic war – but what is really happening? How is it that an oil producing country becomes the first ecosocialist country? To start with, please explain to us the situation in Venezuela, before and after Chavez.

LR: I first met Chavez during the PRV period.[1] I attended secret meetings long before the civilian-military coup attempt, when Chavez was in the military. Remember that Chavez originally was fighting the guerrillas; as a soldier that was his job. Later his ideas began changing, but that was his training.

But before Chavez, without any doubt, there was an accumulation of revolutionary struggle, beginning with the indigenous resistance to the arrival of the Spanish. Next came the war of independence, and Simon Bolivar’s idea of all Latin America struggling together. This was a highly revolutionary idea which transcended territoriality – that there was a common enemy, and that we have to fight it together independently of where we come from. Finally, there came the influence of the Soviet revolution and Marxism, which was another source of inspiration for revolutionary movements.

Sometimes people try to say that Chavez inspired everything, but it’s not true. Chavez had the great virtue of having united all these struggles. The revolutionary Marxists were very vanguardist; they were isolated from the people. The legacy of the indigenous struggles was forgotten and buried. Chavez was able to raise both together, and to re-vindicate the Bolivarian idea of continental struggle, not only for peoples, but also for states and governments. Chavez achieved the unification of processes that had been developing inside states, crystallizing them into UNASUR and ALBA, etc.[2] He achieved an interpretation of the universal struggle.

Chavez was able to break a schema within Marxism which claims that you can only get state power through the accumulation of worker struggles. And Chavez made the mischief of taking power, which no one was expecting, like scoring a surprise goal in soccer. Many sectors in Venezuela voted for Chavez like people voted for Obama here; for hope.

He put the struggle forward in the name of indigeneity, Christianity, Bolivarianism and Marxism, and after five or six years, when all those things were consolidated, he declared himself Socialist. That’s the great audacity of Chavez. He waged two serious combats: one in geopolitics, with the concept of the multipolar world, with the creation of Latin American and Caribbean blocs, and second, internally in Venezuela, by putting forward socialism.

Here there’s a big problem. Because he put forward socialism in a rentier petroleum society. This is a serious contradiction. It wasn’t unwarranted when Bush said that Chavez did politics with his own bag of money on the side. But Chavez achieved something that us Marxists never could – reaching the people, interpreting the essence of the people, and bringing the revolutionary spirit to people. He achieved a process which normally would have taken a very long time to develop. He won the revolutionary heart of the people. This process of raising consciousness was unprecedented for us in Venezuela. He dedicated himself to make a didactic government – everything he had to say, he said in front of the people. And he explained it in an affective way. He used love, and achieved a channel of communication that Marxists had never used. We knew the essence of revolution was love, but he used it in a didactic, affective way. And it transcends language and race – it reached Africans, Asians; people all over the world. And we have to deepen this more. It has to do with the interpretation of the spirituality which peoples have inside them, a revolutionary spirituality. And that’s why they had to kill Chavez. They tried in many ways to topple him. I believe that they poisoned him.

QS: Whether or not they killed him, he was killed by capitalism, because cancer is capitalism on a cellular level. Either way, and this is something we have to say over and over, he left a legacy and a mandate. It’s very specific! It’s in the Plan Patria.[3] It’s ecosocialism!

LR: Chavez lived the time that he had to live. He left us many things. He opened up a universal struggle, he universalized the struggle for multipolarity. Apart from the blocs that he created, he encouraged the struggles of peoples in other countries.

But he couldn’t make the internal transformation of the state, and turn it into a revolutionary state. That would have been impossible, because we have a colonialist state. The Spanish brought the language, the state and the religion. And the state, despite the good intentions of Chavez, has not changed. It is in the same structural schema. That’s a big contradiction. So what happens after Chavez? After Chavez there are people with a high revolutionary motivation. Now there is a struggle is to take control of the state, to be resolved through the game of elections, and through other forms of struggle that the international and Venezuelan right invents to get control of the state – coups, economic war, breaking OPEC and lowering oil prices, etc.

The other very serious issue raised by Chavez is the Orinoco Petroleum Belt. Chavez put forward a new conception of the possession of natural resources. It goes above the idea of rent for the land, of the idea of a state which owns its own resources. Chavez developed the proposal that this oil is for the whole world, for all countries. This is in the Plan Patria too, but it has hardly been repeated. We have to discuss this, all over the world, and discuss what he offered. Oil for everyone!

JK: Or oil for no one!

LR: Exactly, because in our model of civilization, we’re going to consume this oil. And so this is a developmentalist, economistic proposal. And Chavez knew that. Here you can notice a change in Chavez’s thinking. After the oil strike, Chavez brought out the first Plan de la Patria, which talked about socialism. In 2013, with the second Plan de la Patria, ecosocialism came in. Initially the proposal was economistic, developmentalist. The fifth point in the Plan Patria, was added on. This is the contradiction. The first four points have a developmentalist outlook. And the fifth is ecosocialist: “to preserve life on the planet and save the human species.”

QS: When I was in the 4th Congress of Biological Diversity in Paraguana, there was a debate about this. Some said ‘we are only for the 5th point, for ecosocialism, not for the others.’ But others pointed out that there are positive elements in the other points, which can be useful for the construction of ecosocialism.

LR: There’s a serious contradiction here because when you define ecosocialism, you define the kind of socialism that you want. The fifth point is where we define the socialism that we want. The fifth point defines an ecological socialism; a socialism that has consonance with the earth, etc. This is a contradiction which not all Chavistas understand or want to understand. And that’s why it’s so important right now to fight, to insist that socialism must be ecosocialism. This is the struggle at the bottom. Developmentalism versus ecosocialism.

QS: So we’re in a crisis not just of capitalism, but of the modelo civilizatorio, the model of civilization and the civilizing model. The transformation that we need is not just technical and political, but epistemological, philosophical and spiritual. On that note, we’d like to know more about your experience in working as a librarian in indigenous communities. How does this influence your understanding of ecosocialism?

JK: When I hear the word librarian, I think of someone who works in a nice stone library handing out books.

LR: I did this for 25 years. We started in 1978. In the Amazonas there are 13 different ethnic groups. 34 in all of Venezuela. And the state where there is the highest concentration of indigenous people is Amazonas. Between the states of Amazonas and Bolivar, those are 80% of all the indigenous people in Venezuela. In the Western paradigm, you take knowledge in a book to those who don’t have knowledge. When we arrived in the Amazonas, we encountered people who don’t give the same importance to writing that they do in the West. They use oral traditions as a way of conserving knowledge and traditions over time.

And so we invented what we called ‘the living book’ (libro viviente), and ‘the reading of reality’ (la lectura de la realidad) – to give life to what the human being knows. The Western paradigm didn’t like that so much, because its idea is that if it’s not in a book, there’s no knowledge. From the middle ages, from the first colony, there has been the idea that those who don’t read or write do not have any knowledge. This was really the burying of the knowledge that had been there. Western knowledge destroyed and flattened indigenous knowledge. And first of all, the knowledge of myths and mythologies, which are the explication of the world through a profound respect for nature, which is the essence of myths. We believe that there, in those myths, is where we can find the original socialism. We believe that the search for socialism should take all the universal theories into account, including the contributions of Western theories of socialism, but they should come from and through that original indigenous socialism. Precisely because this original socialism arises out of a respect for nature and an understanding of the human being as part of a whole. That’s why in Venezuela, and in all of Latin America, when we talk about the path to socialism, it must begin with the respect, valorization, deep study and investigation of the indigenous communities that fortunately are still present.

QS: When you went as a librarian into these indigenous communities, you had to find a synthesis between the oral traditions and the books. This search for a synthesis seems to me to be an allegory for ecosocialism. Could you explain this a little more?

LR: It was a contradiction. As a librarian, you take a book with you like an essence. We were part of the mobile library system. I was a coordinator of the mobile library services, as part of a collective. We traveled with our books by buses and by boats and by donkeys. So we had a struggle with our superiors when we decided that we weren’t going to take books with us any more. What we proposed to do was start from the knowledge of the living books, in order to design an indigenous library. What would a library look like for an indigenous community? So we began a process of bringing together teams of librarians from seven different countries that had indigenous populations, and from there came a design of what indigenous librarians and libraries could be. We organized several international conferences. But it’s not easy for the West to admit any of this! The library system has a Western mentality, based on the idea that there is no knowledge there, that knowledge is in the West, and that we must take knowledge to give them.

In the case of Venezuela, the library system was started by Viriginia Betancourt, daughter of President Romulo Betancourt, one of those most allied to the USA, who gave the oil away most freely. His daughter, who studied sociology and library science, took advantage of being the president’s daughter, and created the library structure and system. It’s a formal system, with all the buildings and shelves, etc. But they also included the idea of mobile libraries. I entered into that division. And we put forward the possibility of attention to indigenous communities.

When Chavez arrived, Virginia Betancourt took off. Others took over, but they had the same Western mentality. It’s not easy – there’s so much ideological colonization. But independently of the maturity that Western revolutionaries may have, it’s so important to emphasize that the indigenous peoples were conscious of the opportunity they had with Chavez. They had political consciousness for a long time. During the consultation for the new constitution, we helped methodologically in the constituent process, we consulted with all the indigenous communities, asking them what they wanted in the new constitution.

When Chavez asked that the indigenous communities be respected, the first things they spoke about were respect for their existence on the land, their customs and traditions. Not only the ownership of land, but about their sacred rights, and that their cosmovision be respected. Thus the new constitution has many articles dedicated to respect for indigenous communities, saying that they should have their own schools, and also their own libraries. Before Chavez, there was no respect for indigenous peoples. They had no rights, and there was no respect for their cosmovisions.

QS: I’d like to pick up on the idea of respect for cosmovision. In The Enemy of Nature, Joel distinguishes himself from most other Marxists in insisting on a different category of value. Beyond use value and exchange value, you talk about the intrinsic value of nature. A new form of value, but also the oldest form of value, which is recognized by indigenous communities all over the world – the intrinsic value of nature. Could you talk about this?

LR: I’d like to ask a question about this. We have had discussions about the theory of value throughout the Trueke system, which has 14 different sites all over Venezuela.[4] We believe that Marx considered only a few of the elements of value. He considered costs, prices of raw materials, etc. He left out everything about value which exists beyond human labor. So right now, this is the discussion we are having – what is the value of things? There are many elements, in addition to everything Marx put forward in Capital, elements of value which are beyond price, cost, raw materials and surplus value. We believe that when we establish the value of things, we often don’t consider everything. For example the campesino comes to the market with his product, but how do you calculate the value of the ancestral seed, the living books, the reading of reality, the time, the seasons, etc?

JK: The meaning of “value” presents a puzzle essential to solve, and it cuts across everything we are talking about. I agree that Marx narrowed it down too much, but he did so, in my view, for a strategically theoretical reason, so we could identify the “fingerprint,” so to speak, of the capitalist beast. We should hold onto that while at the same time not lose track of alternative ways of thinking about value and applying these to a radically transformed world beyond capital.

In fact, Marx was sensitive to this issue. In the last 10 years of his life, a highly important project for Marx was to understand the potential for autonomous development of indigenous peoples, which he pursued because he wanted us to understand that the question of socialism had to be answered on a global scale. You can see this in his ethnological notebooks. Marx worked this way all his life, he went to the library, read everything, and copied it into his notebooks. When Marx was young, he studied political economy. When he was old, he studied anthropology from a historical perspective, chiefly to see whether ‘First Peoples’ had to go through a capitalist phase. And his answer was, “possibly but not necessarily”: it depended on how their struggle was assisted by people in the metropolitan regions who would resist the imperial/colonial power. And this is exactly the question posed by ecosocialism, though of course the term was not then in use.

It’s a sad story that these insights of Marx were not successfully developed in the years after his death. But this was not for lack of trying. Few people realize that in the first decade of the Soviet Union, with Lenin leading the way, and in the teeth of counter-revolution and civil war, there was a tremendous amount of discussion on this question. After Stalin took command, this was pretty much crushed. However, in the 1920s, questions which included consideration of “primitive people” in the vast lands of the Russian Federation, as well as the natural preserves, were a major theme of the revolution. There is so much prejudice against the Soviets, the idea that they would have been ahead of Western thinkers is forbidden, you are not supposed to conceive of it. But it was true, even after Stalin it was true, but of course, not true enough.

When people ask me, Joel, are you a Marxist? I say yes, but not a “good” Marxist. I didn’t study Marx at school when I was young, I taught myself, over many years, when I was older, over thirty, in fact, the age after which the yippie radicals said we should trust nobody…

LR: Well it’s the best age to understand.

JK: I have many Marxist friends, and for all their merits, they tend to seriously lack understanding of this dimension. They see themselves as members of the advancing civilization of the West. And the backward peoples have to be brought along. We encounter the attitude all the time, and it’s a serious drawback, because Marxism is a necessary foundation for developing a point of view that is truly universal. Marx’s great contribution was universality – that he could see things across the whole planet and from a vast historical perspective and that his revolutionary contribution was deeply grounded philosophically. As for myself, since I was never indoctrinated in orthodox Marxism, I approached the subject using other perspectives derived from my previous studies. Before I was a Marxist, I had many other interests which didn’t fit with what Marxists thought was important. I was a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst, fields in which there were people who studied primitive peoples and valued them, though of course from a limited bourgeois perspective. I also went through a phase when I came under the influence of the school of Wilhelm Reich, an extremely radical and complex figure whose thought sensitized me to First Peoples from a decidedly non-bourgeois perspective. In 1961, while in medical school, I took an elective in Suriname and was fortunate to travel on the Tapanahony and Maroni rivers, on the northern slopes of Amazonia. I lived briefly with the peoples of the rivers. Some were descendants of maroons, also called “Bush Negroes,” in addition to the indigenous Caribe Indians.

LR: They were the ones who most resisted and fought against the Spanish.

JK: Yes. Later, in the early 1980s and while in academia, I had a friend, Stanley Diamond, a Marxist anthropologist. He was like an older brother and mentor to me, and exerted considerable influence through a collection of his writings, “In Search of the Primitive.” The word, Primitive, has a bad connotation, but what Diamond meant by it was to be original, first, basic – who we really were. He studied mostly in Africa, but there is a fundamental unity about First Peoples, who are “communist,” including a rich, complex and universalizing spirituality, that can be extended throughout the world and stands in contradiction to the world-destroying influence of capital. That, to me, is the contradiction that matters. As I put it in the title of a book I wrote: capitalism is “The Enemy of Nature.”

Like Diamond, an unorthodox Marxist, I also have had a lot of religious ideas, which I do not regard as contradictory to science and historical materialism. Neither did Marx (who famously said that he was not a Marxist), especially when he was young. For me the human being is a profoundly spiritual creature. Capitalism represents the corrupt conversion of this into the idolatrous worship of commodities, through what Marx called their fetishism. Any valid revolutionary theory, and certainly ecosocialism, cannot and should not think of undoing capitalism in separation from revaluing the spiritual dimension and including this among the basic forms of value. That’s a basic generalization which I think holds across the entire planet, whether you’re talking about Australia, New York, Ecuador, or Sri Lanka: it’s a global, cosmic challenge. Unfortunately, a great many Marxists are totally ignorant of and without interest in this. Therefore part of our job as ecosocialists is to correct this tendency.

I don’t prioritize Western spiritualties. Take Taoism for example, which is about the pure, distilled intrinsic value of nature. The Tao is nature as generative, something much greater than us, and from which we come. Whether we think of God in a Judaeo-Christian way, or in a Taoist way, or from the standpoint of forest peoples, the logic is basically the same: Nature is much greater than us, we are its children, and if we don’t respect it, we are going to be destroyed.

Of course there are a great many people in industrialized countries who say things of this kind. But talk is cheap; and they don’t take into account the whole picture, and conclude that harmonizing with nature requires destroying capitalism, nature’s enemy. The spiritually progressive bourgeoisie includes a great many people who think that they are contributing to human well being with their different cults: We have to meditate while we accumulate! But unfortunately, meditation in itself will not do the job. In Woodstock, New York, where I lived for a while there are two world centers of Buddhism, one Tibetan and one Zen. But it’s Buddhism for the affluent. It’s disgusting, like any religion for the rich. You cannot worship God and Mammon, as Jesus said.

QS: So what would you say to a group of campesinos who understand what you’ve said, and they want to know the answer to a question which is practical but also philosophical – about how to value things, about intrinsic value.

JK: First of all, I would be very embarrassed to try to give them a lecture, that is, speak down to them from a position of expertise. I would ask them, rather, what they think, and how these matters grow out of their life. I expect they intuitively understand that the rich worship commodities, as Marx spells out in the passages on fetishism in the opening chapter of Capital, and makes the point that we need to understand this from the perspective of a religion gone wrong.

Wherever surplus value is generated and turns into capital, that’s a point at which the integrity of the ecosystem is broken. But in our view of ecosocialism, developed in the Enemy of Nature and in the work of Ecosocialist Horizons, the most important condition for ecosocialism is not taking care of the energy questions of energy or pollution, all of which are necessary, but it has to be about liberating the productive powers of human beings, with freely associated labor, which is the core idea of socialism.

QS: And we have to qualify that when we talk about freeing the productive powers, we’re not talking about freeing them to build more extractive industries. We’re talking about understanding production in qualitatively a different way, about producing ecosystems, and about producing human beings as integral parts of those ecosystems.

JK: Exactly: that’s the core principle of ecosocialism. Marx says “we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the precondition for the free development of all”. The foundation of an ecosocialist society is to break the bonds of capitalist accumulation. That would work itself out in ways that have to be concretely explored and transformed across the planet, to the concrete degree that labor is bound up with value and surplus value.

One development in my own thinking which does not extend into Marxist orthodoxy, is that we should think of forms of value as kinds of struggle. The capitalist system is one in which exchange value overcomes use value at every point. And this is what’s happening in this country and across the capitalist world. For example the recent boxing match – Mayweather v Pacquiao – 300 million dollars! In 1 hour! And the winner gets a check for 100 million dollars! This shows a society in which exchange value is dissociated from all human need, reaching a level of utter destructivity. Has there ever been so irrational a society?

In my early years as an ecosocialist, I worked with James O’Connor, of Santa Cruz, Califronia the founder of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. In the late 1990s, he developed the idea that ecosocialism should be a struggle for use value. In other words, enhancement of use value consciously defines the direction of struggle, whether against the exploitation of labor or of nature. In both sides, the monetary form of value is augmented insofar as capital wins. Meanwhile, society is rotting out from under itself, because money makes money and in the process destroys nature and labor. O’Connor made an advance by saying that enhancement of use value should determine the form of struggle. Unfortunately, he became too ill for us to carry this on together. I began thinking of another form of value, which you can situate or place in actual struggle. The struggle for use value, which is necessary, because that is where nature is transformed – is strengthened by the intrinsic value of nature.

Obviously values themselves don’t do the fighting. But human beings fight for values. Therefore, to the degree that we have strengthened the notion of the primary, intrinsic value of nature, so are people strengthened to fight for forms of value that are ecologically integral. It gives us a way to think about and ultimately coordinate all the ecosocialist struggles everywhere, and begin thinking about a truly global society that is ecologically rational.

LR: I’m very moved, because this reflection is very essential for me in this conjuncture. In this sense I want to learn everything I can. Because in Venezuela the economic war, independently of being promoted by the bourgeoisie and by imperialism, has begun to involve all the people. And they’re attacking everything we’ve accumulated over the years, specifically the revolutionary values.

It’s not just the bourgeoisie – they’ve been successful in agitating the common people. They’re destroying not only the values accumulated during the revolution, but older values, like honesty, respect for others, community, respect for nature; all being upset and misplaced by the value of money. In this sense, I believe that the encounter that we’re planning for the First Ecosocialist International[5], is essential at this moment in Venezuela. Along with Bolivia and Ecuador, we’re right at the center of the economic war of imperialism. This is happening everywhere maybe, but the conjuncture that we have in Venezuela right now is at the point where we could lose what we’ve accumulated. That’s why I believe it’s so important, because the discussion at the root here is about values. The value of values.

We believe that Trueke is a living space where we can socially practice this struggle that we’re talking about. This is the essence of the struggle. But we need instruments for rectification, for struggle, for confrontation – for overcoming the evils that capitalism has created. Trueke is a social space, a real space, where we overcome things. Struggles can’t just be about positions. They are exercised socially and by the peoples themselves.

There is an investigation happening now about how different indigenous groups had very advanced forms of economy in bioregional relations. For example there is evidence that certain sites of exchange existed, physical spaces that had a sacred quality, where a person could bring things for exchange. You could arrive alone, with your things, and make an exchange with what was left there. If you took more than you gave, you left salt. But the judge of value was the individual’s conscience. This is a form of being just which is different than the Judaeo-Christian one.

JK: I think that the history of that tradition is too vast to fit into such a statement. Though there are many examples where this would hold, there are many others which move in the direction you are advocating, for example, the Catholic Worker movement in the US, or the tremendous innovations which took place across Latin America after Vatican II. After all, the Gospels of Jesus can also be read as a critique of money, value, and a narrowing of humanity. The Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke ask us to be like about the birds of the air or the flowers in the field. And Jesus’ one act of violence was to kick the bankers out of the temple. And that’s why they crucified him. This should not be forgotten, nor should the fact that Che Guevara’s famous statement about the supreme power of Love that guides the revolutionary is directly taken from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.

  1. PRV: Partido Revolucionario de Venezuela; Revolutionary Party of Venezuela.
  2. ALBA: Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América; Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. UNASUR: Unión de Naciones Suramericanas; Union of South American Nations.
  3. Plan de la Patria: Plan of the Homeland. An english translation of the Venezuelan government’s six year plan referred to here and below is available online here:
  4. For more about Trueke:—and-Win-20161014-0026.html
  5. The First Ecosocialist International was convoked and constituted in a multi-year process in Venezuela beginning in 2015 and culminating in 2017. Read its Plan of Action here: