Pablo Velasco reivews Venezuela and Revolution in the 21st Century by Joseph Choonara, Socialist Worker pamphlet
The emergence of an independent labour movement in Venezuela has been one of the most exciting developments in Latin America in recent years. The formation of the UNT, whose leadership includes many class struggle militants, is a welcome development after forty years of domination by the bureaucratic and corrupt CTV union federation.
Embryonic elements of workers’ control in some factories show that the labour movement has the potential to challenge both state and capitalist control of industry. And the founding of the Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS) suggests the potential coalescence of Marxist revolutionaries intent on leading the working class to take power in Venezuela.
At the same time, the government of Hugo Chávez has carved out an independent role, opposed to neo-liberalism whilst promoting national capitalist development in Venezuela. In foreign policy Chávez has vigorously opposed George Bush while allying with Stalinist Cuba, the Iranian clerics, and the Chinese totalitarians.
The international left has been divided on Venezuela and especially assessment of the Chávez government. Some, notably Socialist Appeal in Britain and Green Left Weekly in Australia have become straightforward fellow travellers of Chávez, providing ideological and practical support for his government with little or no criticism. On the other hand, the AWL has characterised Chávez’s regime as bourgeois and Bonapartist and warned the Venezuelan working class of the dangers of co-option and repression.
Where does the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in Britain stand on these questions? Don’t expect them to be critical of Chávez...
The text is largely a bland narrative going over the events of the last four years. It focuses mainly on the old regime’s attempts to overthrow Chávez. It remains largely a history from above, even if the author stops short of proclaiming Chávez a great man.
The SWP argues that there is a “revolutionary process” going on in Venezuela, without clearly defining its class character or dynamics. It says that this revolutionary process is “driven by growing class conflict”, without delineating the class character of the Chávez government.
The nearest it gets is its description Chávez’s MVR party as “nationalist” and “reformist” and that the constitution favours private property.
It presents the class struggle going on in Venezuela as having only two poles – the old reactionaries on the one side and everyone else, including Chávez on the other. The idea that there are class divisions within the bourgeoisie, or that Chávez might represent sections of Venezuelan national capital, is not even entertained. Nor is the perspective put forward that the labour movement needs to strive from independence of both the old reactionaries and the Chávez movement.
No doubt the SWP would reject this as abstract neutralism. But it does so only by forgetting the meaning of working-class independence. Working class politics does not mean treating all sides equally. It does not mean being indifferent to threats to overthrow Chávez. It was quite right for independent trade unionists to begin organising a general strike when the coup plotters briefly overthrew Chávez in April 2002. It would be quite right for the labour movement to oppose a US invasion arms in hand.
But Chávez does not head a workers’ government, nor does he promote working class politics, whatever the rhetoric about “socialism”. For the working class to take power in Venezuela today, it will have to smash the existing state, a state currently headed by Chávez. It will have to expropriate capital currently protected by Chávez’s government. That makes Chávez a class opponent of Venezuelan workers, an obstacle in the way of their own self-liberation.
The pamphlet compresses to the point of erasure the debates that have gone on within the left and the labour movement — for example over the referendum in 2004 or between different factions within the UNT. It describes no workers’ struggles, mentions only in passing the co-managed factories without comment and refers elliptically to the PRS, without mentioning their name – never mind their programme or its limitations.
It takes Chávez’s rhetoric about socialism at face value, arguing that, “Venezuela has placed the questions of socialism and workers’ power back on the agenda”.
It presents the butchers of Iraqi workers as allies, and spins a preposterous scenario, when it suggests that events in Bolivia “combined with the resistance in Iraq that makes direct involvement for more difficult for the US, create the possibility for a socialist revolution in Venezuela to spread to other Latin American countries.”
The pamphlet is largely an opportunistic attempt to relate to the mood of “revolution” without looking at the substance. It is the same method behind the SWP’s sudden embrace of the Stalinist icon Che Guevara. It teaches young people nothing, challenges no preconceptions, adds nothing to their knowledge of Venezuelan reality.
And worse, the SWP’s advice to revolutionaries to “work within the revolutionary process” is a suicide note. It would mean for now accepting the hegemony of Chávez, going along with his methods, remaining silent about the nature and direction of Bolivarianism. In short it is to play the role of a cheerleader, not an active agent, in social transformation.