Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution: A debate
The February 16, 2005 issue of Socialist Worker, newspaper of the International Socialists in Canada, featured an article by Paul Kellogg, entitled “Chavez Praises Socialism, Denounces Capitalism.” The March 23 issue featured a response by Socialist Voice co-editor John Riddell, entitled “Why Socialists Defend the Bolivarian Revolution.” Both articles are published below.
Why Socialists Defend the Bolivarian Revolution
By John Riddell, Co-editor, Socialist Voice
[Socialist Worker, March 23, 2005]
In the February 16 issue of Socialist Worker, Paul Kellogg calls on socialists in Canada to “pay close attention to events in Venezuela, and build solidarity with the people of that country.” Socialist Voice agrees completely — his article is a welcome addition to discussion on the Canadian left of events in Venezuela.
The working people of Venezuela, led by the Bolivarian movement of President Hugo Chávez, are engaged in the first major revolutionary upsurge the world has seen in fifteen years. Their progress has outraged the war-makers in Washington and other imperialist capitals, and is fueling a deepening resistance throughout Latin America to capitalist exploitation.
Unfortunately, while Kellogg welcomes developments in Venezuela, much of his article is devoted to inappropriate criticism of the Bolivarian leadership. We cannot agree with his rejection of Venezuela’s efforts to defend itself with arms and alliances, or with his focus on contradictions in Hugo Chávez’s fast-evolving political views.
Kellogg criticizes Venezuela’s purchase of 24 Brazilian-made fighter airplanes for US$170 million, for example, as “a huge waste of money desperately needed by the Venezuelan poor.” We disagree: socialists must actively champion Venezuela’s right to self-defense, including acquiring the most modern weapons available.
The failure of right-wing forces inside Venezuela to overthrow the Bolivarian revolution is leading Washington to prepare a military attack. It is using the brutally repressive and heavily armed government of Colombia as its agent. Colombian forces have already made incursions across the Venezuelan border.
Venezuela’s poor need political power and the physical means to defend themselves. The Chávez government has proposed the formation of popular armed militias to help defend the revolution, and recent arms purchases, including 100,000 AK-47s, provide the material means to carry through on this pledge. No wonder Washington is alarmed!
Kellogg also criticizes Chávez for orienting to “strategic alliances” with Russia, China, Brazil and other states, rather than “‘looking down’ to the workers and the poor in order to deepen the social transformation.” Once again, the issue is self-defense. Without trade deals with other countries, social transformation in Venezuela would be cut short by economic collapse. Venezuela’s foreign policy aims to ally with other semi-colonial countries in opposition to imperialist globalization. To this end, Venezuela has proposed the Bolivarian Agreement for the Americas (ALBA), a plan to forge ties among Latin American peoples on a foundation of equality, solidarity, and the well-being of the dispossessed.
So far, only Cuba has signed on to this plan. The Venezuelans’ close ties with revolutionary Cuba are one alliance of theirs that can properly be called “strategic.”
All these initiatives have solid precedents in the foreign policy of the early Soviet republic.
When Kellogg criticizes Chávez for not “looking down” to the workers and poor to advance the revolution, he ignores the fact that, alone among the governments in Latin America that claim to be anti-imperialist, the Bolivarians have consistently relied on and mobilized the masses of working people to defend their government and implement its program.
Kellogg is very critical of contradictions in Chávez’s political views, including his favorable statements about Russia’s Putin and others. But Chávez did not begin as a Marxist, and the Marxist current in Venezuela is very weak. He is a genuine leader thrown forward by the struggle and is learning as he goes.
The aims of the Bolivarian movement are completely at odds with the likes of political figures like Putin. We don’t know how Chávez and the Bolivarian movement will evolve politically in the long term, but the direction they’re moving in right now is one that socialists should support.
Kellogg concludes with a call for development of a radical left in Venezuela that will rely on “worker and peasant action from below” rather than “putting faith in radical leaders at the top of society.” This artificially counterposes the development of the mass movement to the development of revolutionary leadership, which in Venezuela today is developing in and through the Bolivarian movement.
Are Venezuelan workers wrong to trust in the Bolivarians? Many socialist groups in Canada call for some new, more “radical” Venezuelan movement — and deny support to the Bolivarians in electoral confrontations with reaction.
Such views find no echo in the Venezuelan workers’ movement. The Bolivarians are pressing ahead with major reforms and refusing to back down in the face of imperialist threats. They have more than earned the support they enjoy from the Venezuelan people.
All the experience of the past century shows that revolutionary, anti-capitalist movements never conform to the prevailing views of Marxists of what they ought to look like. For that reason, we welcome Paul Kellogg’s advice to “pay close attention to events in Venezuela.” With all our wisdom, we may yet have things to learn.
Ferment in Venezuela: Chavez Praises Socialism, Denounces Capitalism
By Paul Kellogg, editor, Socialist Worker
[Socialist Worker, February 16, 2005]
One of the highlights of the World Social Forum was the speech by Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, to 30,000 enthusiastic supporters packed into the Gigantinho indoor stadium in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
Many in the crowd chanted “Lula nao, Chavez si” (Lula no, Chavez yes) showing their displeasure with the neo-liberal turn of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT) government in Brazil. They were looking for a more left-wing message from Chavez. They got it.
“It is impossible, within the framework of the capitalist system, to solve the grave problems of poverty of the majority of the world’s population … we must transcend capitalism.
“But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project, and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.”
A name that was anathema for years was quoted favourably. Chavez cited the writings of Leon Trotsky as a guide to understanding the course of the Venezuelan revolution.
No wonder George W. Bush and other western leaders hate Chavez so thoroughly. For a president of one of the world’s largest oil producers to be denouncing capitalism, promoting a non-Stalinist version of socialism, and treating Trotsky with respect, is to make enemies in corporate offices all over the world.
Bush has already tried on several occasions to destabilize or overthrow Chavez. We now know that the CIA was fully aware in 2002 that a coup attempt against him was in the works, but did nothing. Bush hoped that the coup would succeed and that a US-friendly regime would take Chavez’ place.
In the event, of course, an uprising in the barrios of the urban poor forced the coup leaders to retreat, and reinstated Chavez into office.
There is no question that there will be attempts to destabilize the Venezuelan government in the future.
It is the duty of all on the left in Canada and the west to pay close attention to events in Venezuela, and build solidarity with the people of that country against any attempt to destabilize the regime from the outside.
But it is important also to be clear about the contradictions in Chavez politics and orientation.
Some of these were revealed in the same speech at the WSF.
He did not just praise socialism. He also praised Russian president, Vladimir Putin — the butcher of Chechnya. “Today’s Russia is not Yeltsin’s … there is a good president, Mr. Putin at the wheel.” He had kind words for China — the regime which crushed a student uprising in blood in 1989, and which today is presiding over economic growth driven by super exploitation of a peasantry driven off the countryside and into the new industries in the cities.
Oil is the secret to this praise of two repressive regimes.
The key to the Venezuelan economy is the state-run oil firm PDVSA, and Chavez is very keen to diversify its export base and therefore be less reliant on the US. China is keen to be a consumer of Venezuelan oil and Russia is keen to be a partner to help Venezuela exploit its vast oil reserves.
Chavez was also unwilling to join in the audience’s criticisms of Lula.
“I like Lula, I appreciate him, and he is a good man, of a great heart. He is a brother, a comrade and I send him a hug, my love and affection.”
The reason for this softness on Lula was made clear February 13, when Lula and Chavez signed 20 agreements in oil and energy projects, as well as a major agreement on defence.
This included a potential $470 million arms deal with Brazil, to allow Chavez to buy Tucano fighter jets, a huge waste of money desperately needed by the Venezuelan poor.
Seeing the two sides of Chavez, then, is extremely important. On the one hand, he is only in power because of a massive radicalization which is sweeping his nation, and whole other swathes of Latin America.
But Chavez himself — while giving voice to the very radical sentiments at the base of society — is not fundamentally “looking down” to workers and the poor in order to deepen the social transformation. Rather he is “looking up” to forming strategic alliances with other states, including Russia, China and Brazil — all states with capitalist interests who are positioning themselves to take advantage of US economic decline.
The key to the development of the Venezuelan movement will not be in state to state alliances, but in deepening the social content of what is being called the Bolivarian revolution.
There are signs that this is happening.
For the first time since coming into office in 1998, Chavez has nationalized a company — the Venepal paper factory. This nationalization came as a result of two workers’ occupations of the factory, and a mass march to the capital Caracas, demanding that the government intervene.
Also for the first time, the Chavez government has extended its important land reform program to taking over privately owned land, the 13,000 hectare El Charcote cattle ranch owned by Britain’s Vestey Group. This is an important development given the intense rural poverty in the Venezuelan countryside, side by side with massive and often idle estates owned by absentee landlords.
But this land seizure only came after hundreds of land seizures on a smaller scale undertaken by the rural poor themselves — land seizures met with brutal opposition by the landed rich, who have killed dozens.
We know from experience that this process of self-mobilization from below is the key to social transformation in Venezuela and elsewhere.
Chavez needs to be defended from imperialist threats.
But we have to understand that Chavez’ radicalism is a reflection of deep processes going on in the Venezuelan masses, and that the key to the future lies with the self-organization of those masses, and the development of a radical left that sees workers and peasant action from below as the key to a revolution, not putting faith in radical leaders at the top of society.