The dead Left: Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution
Platypus Review 25 | July 2010
ONE FINDS QUITE A BIT OF NAME-CALLING among the innumerable articles and blog posts written in criticism of Hugo Chavez and his government. Although most of this invective is not very illuminating, one article by a young, Colombian, Trotsky-ish labor organizer describes Chavez perfectly in two words: a “postmodern Bonapartist.”
Chavez, his Bolivarian Revolution, and his project of “21st Century Socialism” are postmodern in the sense that they exist in a discontinuity, in an amnesiac disconnect, with the modernist project of social and political emancipation that started with the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century and withered and died sometime in the late 20th century. Since this project of freedom is inseparable from the politics of the revolutionary socialist Left, to say that Chavez’s politics are postmodern is simply to say that they are post-Left. He is not a liberal. Nor is he a Marxist. He has never theorized or organized proletarian revolution like Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, or Trotsky did. He has never even advocated for a “people’s war” like Mao or Che. One hesitates even to brand him a Stalinist. While Stalinism was, in Trotsky’s words, “the great organizer of defeats” for the working class, one would be hard pressed to call Chavez a “great organizer” of anything of such historical significance. Indeed, he is best thought of as more effect than cause. While Stalinism made Marxism into a dogma, the only dogma of the Bolivarian Revolution is whatever notion happens to cross Chavez’s mind at the moment. Chavez’s ideology is so versatile there is seemingly nothing it cannot take on board. From time to time, it even makes gestures in the direction of LGBTQ and women’s rights. This, however, should not be seen as anything more than mere posturing, since in Venezuela abortion is still illegal, and Chavez embraces numerous openly homophobic allies such as Evo Morales, Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There are no coherent, historically self-aware principles to the politics of Chavismo. It is bricolage, a precarious construction: Some ’30s vintage Pop Frontism mixed together with a little ’90s anti-globalization, molded upon an armature of ’60s-style developmentalist Third Worldism, and then sprinkled with equal parts “communitarian” participatory democracy, “multiculturalism,” and ascetic anti-consumerism. (A touch of anti-Semitism is added as and when necessary.) Although this incoherent composite can sometimes be cynical and performative, more frequently it tends to be semi-conscious and nearly involuntary—made up of vestigial impulses whose purpose has been forgotten, having been inherited from an older political project, now decomposed beyond recognition.
The historical discontinuity between Chavez’s politics and the revolutionary Left of the 20th century is not only theoretical or ideological; it is also practical. Chavez the politician emerges from no labor background or popular movement. He hardly participated in any leftist organizations before being elected president in 1998. In fact, the Left in Venezuela was dead and buried long before he appeared on the scene.
The story of revolutionary politics in Venezuela is short and dismal. In the late 1950s, the Communist Party of Venezuela [CP] formed a popular front with the Social Democratic Party of Democratic Action [AD] to defeat a military dictatorship and to establish, for the first time, a representative democracy in the country. But the communists were soon abandoned by their erstwhile allies. AD and the Christian Democratic Party [Copei] joined forces to exclude the communists from Venezuela’s political life. At this juncture, some of the more impatient communists, galvanized by events in Cuba, armed themselves and took to the hills. The guerrilla war that followed, planned with the help of Che Guevara himself, was a disaster. Many young leftists died, the CP was criminalized, and Moscow, largely responsible for this turn of events, scolded the revolutionists for getting lost in their dreams of Cuba. Anti-imperialist “national liberation” fighting between guerrillas and the Venezuelan government continued into the mid-1970s, having now little to do with socialist politics. Meanwhile, the CP shriveled as its cadre began its exodus into Eurocommunist-style parties or “third way” social democracy.
It was not until the late 1980s, years after this Cuban-inspired hara-kiri, that Chavez stepped onto the Venezuelan political stage. From the beginning his political career was ideologically unengaged and organizationally disconnected from the history of the Venezuelan Left. But, in fact, this discontinuity is one of the traits that gives Chavez his appeal, especially for his American and European supporters. This is because Chavez seems to stand at a remove from the Left’s sordid history of failure. He appears to offer a fresh start to the intellectually and politically exhausted, while also letting them have it both ways. For although Chavez basks in the fresh air of ahistoricism, he never ceases to piously, if disjointedly, rehearse all the old certainties and comforts. “21st Century Socialism” is appealing because it authorizes its supporters’ unwillingness to reflect upon the failures of its 20th century predecessor without denying them the moral self-satisfaction of remaining true to the good old cause.
Supporters hold up cutouts of Chavez at a rally.
Hugo Chavez came of age in the 1970s and 80s as a military man who believed that the decaying institutions of the Venezuelan government could only be fixed by a strong dose of military discipline. His early ideas of national regeneration had little to do with anti-imperialism and still less to do with socialism. At the time of his failed coup in 1992, they amounted to the belief that the causes of poverty and suffering in Venezuela were the result of nothing more than bureaucratic corruption, so that all that was needed was a strong hand to make the state into a more equitable and efficient redistributor of its wealth.
The young Chavez was right about one thing: In the late 1980s, the Venezuelan state was decaying. The old clientelistic petro-state, which for three decades had produced little political freedom but great stability and a relatively high standard of living, was corroding from within due to corruption and loss of revenue resulting from falling oil prices. The subsequent delegitimization came to a head in 1989 with the explosion of popular anger called the “Caracazo.” The debt crisis of the 1980s forced the newly elected Carlos Andres Perez government to restructure the country’s economy along neoliberal lines and to accept an IMF package that caused a sharp and sudden rise in the cost of living. On the day of the Caracazo, people from the slum city of Guarenas woke up to find they could no longer travel to work because bus fares had doubled overnight. Arguments over the new fares became fights, fights became riots, and riots became massive protests and widespread looting in the neighboring capital city of Caracas. The government cracked down hard and the frenzy of state violence that ensued was of a magnitude such as Caracas had never seen. In the end, some 3000 people were killed, most of them at the hands of Venezuelan security forces.
Despite its tragic dimensions, such a spontaneous, unfocused and disorganized uprising can hardly be called a political movement. And yet, American and British Chavez enthusiasts treat the Caracazo as if it was, as if the rioting masses in Venezuela, who had never heard of Chavez at this point, had somehow been clamoring for a Bolivarian Revolution back in 1989. But the Caracazo was no proletarian uprising, nor even an anti-globalization movement; it was a hopeless rebellion against hopelessness, a desperate protest against the desperation that flowed from Venezuela’s rapidly worsening economic situation and bankrupt political system.
The attempt to turn the Caracazo retrospectively into a proto-Bolivarian mass movement derives from anxiety at the fact that no social movement led to or culminated in the Bolivarian Revolution. When he won the 1998 election six years after his failed military coup, Chavez was not the popular leader of a social movement. He was popular because Venezuela’s political system had lost all legitimacy. People lacked faith in state institutions. Unsurprisingly then, in 1998 Chavez’s support was not drawn exclusively from the working poor, but came from all social classes. Voters responded to Chavez’s message that, as a strong executive, he would be able to shake up corrupt state institutions and save the nation. Chavez’s road to power was thus Bonapartist in that he presented himself as the ideal Venezuelan national who is necessary to reorganize a state in crisis, someone who would discipline decadent elites and facilitate reconciliation between social classes. Yet the qualification of “postmodern” should be added to this Bonapartism because, unlike Napoleon III or Benito Mussolini, Chavez was not the product of the failure of an emergent revolutionary Left. Rather, he is the result and expression of the creeping decay characteristic of a political order vacated by the Left.
At the time of his bungled military coup in 1992, Chavez was no socialist. Nor had he become one when he won the election in 1998. He was still not a socialist when, from 2002 to 2004, sectors of the ruling class banded together with a large majority of Venezuelan organized labor in an attempt to topple him, first by a military coup, then by organizing a lockout of the oil industry, and finally by demanding a recall referendum. The reason for their hostility was not that they feared that Chavez was becoming a socialist or that he might establish a socialist state; they were simply alarmed that his reckless spending, his power-driven nationalization projects, and his unpredictable interventions into legislative matters were producing an environment that was bad for business.
Critics and supporters alike recognize that it was not until the aftermath of the recall referendum of 2004 that Chavez began to move steadily leftward. Only then did he adopt the new rhetoric of “Socialism of the 21st Century.” In the aftermath of the coup and lockout debacles of 2002–03, Chavez’s popularity had hit its lowest point. He had become weak, his attitude towards his enemies conciliatory. But in the months leading up to the referendum, he discovered a new way to rapidly increase his support, especially among the urban poor. A few months before the vote, while flush with income derived from the post-Iraq invasion spike in oil prices, Chavez embarked on a massive program of social spending that targeted sectors of society known as the “ni-ni’s” (neither-nors). These were poor or lower-middle class people who did not feel strongly about the government one way or the other. The device was highly successful and it taught Chavez a lesson he has not forgotten: He could outflank his enemies and maintain his grip on power not through appeasement, but by polarizing Venezuelan society through radical rhetoric and programs for which he alone was responsible.
From 2005 on, Chavez was able to seriously weaken the opposition by making support for the regime a precondition for benefitting from the government’s petrodollar largesse. At the same time, more frequently than before, Chavez took recourse to intimidation and direct attacks against his regime’s opponents. While the most widely publicized case of this new aggressive attitude, the shutting down of the right-wing anti-Chavez TV station RCTV, was itself an unwarranted assault on free speech, other manifestations of this new willingness to intimidate opponents were even more sinister. There was, for example, the “Lista Tascón,” a database of the 2,400,000 people who signed the petition for the recall referendum. Many on this list were fired from their jobs, banned from working in the public sector, and denied issuance of official documents. Use of these and similar techniques of polarization accompanied the change of strategy that Chavez announced at the 2005 World Social Forum to begin work towards a new “Socialism for the 21st Century.” It seems, then, that the radicalization of Chavez’s discourse after 2004 is little more than part of the regime’s more aggressive and polarizing approach. Like the clientelistic spending and the electoral bullying, the turn from nationalist Bolivarianism to “21st Century Socialism” is an instrument of the regime’s larger strategy to foster a “with us or against us” political atmosphere in Venezuela. Those who oppose Chavez, from the Right or from the Left, are no longer just traitors to the nation, but also traitors to socialism and agents of American imperialism.
“21st Century Socialism” and the “revolutionary process” Chavez has spoken about for more than five years now consists primarily of intermittent and radical gestures disguising a system that is very similar to the old pre-Chavez welfare petro-state. Venezuela remains a mixed economy in constant need of foreign investment. This is evident from the way the government continues to avidly court potential American investors. This is also demonstrated, more perniciously, by the government’s practice of aggressively cracking down on inconvenient labor activism, such as the recent intimidation of protesting workers from Mitsubishi, a firm with which Chavez’s regime has many close ties. The bourgeoisie has not been expropriated, nor will it be. Aside from Chavez’s now complete control of the key petroleum industry, expropriations have been primarily symbolic or have served as means of punishing political enemies. They have not significantly changed the economy. As an article in The New Yorker put it in 2007,
If this is socialism, it’s the most business friendly socialism ever devised… The U.S. continues to be Venezuela’s most important trading partner. Much of this business is oil: Venezuela is America’s fourth-largest supplier, and the U.S. is Venezuela’s largest customer. But the flow of trade goes both ways and across many sectors. The U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter to Venezuela, responsible for a full third of its imports. The Caracas skyline is decorated with Hewlett-Packard and Citigroup signs, and Ford and G.M. are market leaders there. And, even as Chavez’s rhetoric has become more extreme, the two countries have become more entwined: trade between the U.S. and Venezuela has risen thirty-six percent in the past year.
There is no dictatorship of the proletariat here, and the government certainly has no intention of “withering away.” In fact, Chavez’s state functions more or less like the old AD and Copei regimes, projecting its power through the selective, top-down redistribution of oil wealth. The difference is mainly rhetorical. Chavez makes poverty relief programs into “missions”; welfarist measures like economic stimuli for small businesses and the building of housing projects are rebranded as “revolutionary” institutions of a “new social economy.” Of course these initiatives, notably the relief missions, are most welcome to those who benefit from them. They have had significant success in alleviating extreme poverty, particularly through subsidized food and free healthcare. Were the Chavista regime to dissolve, this much needed aid might cease. But this should not obscure the fact that these programs render their beneficiaries politically powerless. Because they are intended to be politically demobilizing, this generosity comes at a very steep price. Besides, the anti-poverty initiatives have proven difficult to sustain, decreasing substantially since the economic crisis of 2008. If there were to be a significant fall in oil prices, a situation the regime has not yet suffered, the aid would probably vanish altogether without its recipients being able to do much about it. This is not socialism overcoming the tyranny of poverty. It is a charity that, for the moment, has remained affordable and politically beneficial to a government that holds all the cards.
Other programs, the ones that are actually supposed to empower the “people,” are even more problematic. This is especially the case with the “communal neighborhood councils.” It seems that Chavez has keyed in to the fact that it has become fashionable on the contemporary “Left” to replace the working class with the “community” as the agent that will overcome capitalism, and to replace internationalism with localism. The regime represents the neighborhood councils as a new form of “communal participatory democracy” destined to overcome the “elitism” of bourgeois representative democracy. These councils are localized organizations, strictly party affiliated and exclusively funded by the state, where a group of families from a neighborhood are selected to lead community work on neighborhood development and local infrastructure. Their political scope is extremely limited: They make decisions on repairing streets or building houses, all the while remaining completely dependent on the state. In this environment, “participatory democracy” simply consists of the elimination of the secret ballot and thus the monitoring of opposition within the councils. Ultimately, these organizations have been a boon for Chavez, since a law has recently been passed in which Chavez’s government can overrule decisions made by local elected officials such as mayors. Since Chavez is in complete control of these councils, they have become a useful tool for him to keep disgruntled officials in check, whether they are members of his own party or affiliated with the opposition.
Then there are the cooperatives, which are also touted as the basis of the new “social economy.” Despite the rhetoric of non-capitalist, “endogenous” development, these cooperatives function chiefly as sources of cheap, temporary labor for the public sector. Small groups of workers are given financial and logistical support to enter into short-term contracts with private companies, but as often as not they end up working for PDVSA, the state oil company. Since members of these cooperatives are legally not considered workers, but self-employed associates, their labor is exempt from labor laws and subject to super-exploitation. As a result, they are often paid less than minimum wage. The cooperatives go out of business or lose government patronage if they attempt to improve their conditions.
The fact that enthusiastic observers of Chavez’s “revolutionary process” see such initiatives as the way to overcome capitalism says more about the observers’ understanding of capitalism than it does about the process itself. For such enthusiasts, capitalism equals the Washington consensus and IMF-enforced neoliberalism. In their imagination, a charitable, paternalistic state that constantly violates workers’ right of association seems to have replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the road to socialism. This is especially shameful for self-avowed Marxist supporters of Chavez such as Tariq Ali and Alan Woods, who are either not paying attention or just playing stupid with respect to El Comandante’s approach to labor.
Noam Chomsky visits Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Chavez has been an enemy of union autonomy and organized labor from day one. As early as 1999, he suspended all collective bargaining in the public administration and petroleum sectors. The state has frequently intervened in union elections, and refused to recognize leadership unsupportive of the government. Even before they backed the coup attempt, Chavez tried to destroy the old AFL-CIO affiliated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). More recently, he has succeeded in strong-arming the National Union of Workers (UNT) to surrender their autonomy and join his newfangled United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). As with the Mitsubishi case, Chavez showed his willingness to use the police to put an end to politically inconvenient mobilizations, strikes, and factory takeovers. As he put it with cynical bluntness in one speech, “We need the party and we need the unions, but we can’t let each do as they please. Unions are just like parties, they want autonomy and they want to make decisions. This is not right, we didn’t come here to fumble around. We came here to make a revolution.” When UNT joined Chavez’s party it crippled the union for years, and today the leaders who opposed the union’s surrender of autonomy have been purged. At the moment, the UNT, now headed by Chavista organizers, is considering dissolving itself altogether. To replace it and other unions, Chavez now proposes a new program of “workers councils” which, despite their revolutionary-sounding name, will be no more than servile government organizations meant to monitor and ultimately eliminate the authority of pesky labor activists. Autonomous political action by the working class is, at this point, under a full-scale assault in Venezuela.
The Bolivarian Revolution christens everything it does with high-sounding revolutionary names. Union-busting government organizations get the name of “workers councils,” party-dependant neighborhood associations become “participatory democracy,” and unfinished housing projects in depopulated areas are trumpeted as visionary “socialist cities.” Chavez has renamed the familiar tools of holding onto power, by drawing heavily upon the vocabularies of 20th century socialism. This has been most obviously the case with the regime’s use of the language of anti-imperialism. Chavez’s clownish anti-American antics, such as calling Bush the devil, and saying he had “left a smell of sulfur” at the UN, are just so many desperate publicity stunts to get negative attention from Washington. Chavez needs the American threat. It is an awkward situation for him that there are no serious plans for U.S. invasion, and that the days have passed when the Venezuelan Right was strong enough to ask Washington for support like it did in 2003. A diffuse state of emergency is a critical element of the regime’s political effectiveness. If Chavez becomes a non-issue for the U.S., it will become more difficult for him to wield anti-imperialist rhetoric, to blame the opposition for all that goes awry, and to demonize his opponents as agents of imperialism—a practice that reached its absurd nadir when the Chavista UNT organizers accused the Trotskyist labor leader Orlando Chirino of working for imperialist counterrevolution.
From what standpoint does one criticize a “socialist” regime that threatens striking workers with arrest and prosecutes labor leaders who seek to maintain union independence? From what standpoint do we oppose a military strongman who has called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “brother revolutionary”? Despite the obvious opportunism, ideological incoherence, and anti-labor politics of the regime, the question of whether it is possible to oppose Chavez from the Left is not cut and dried. Although Chavez’s regime is indeed an obstacle for truly emancipatory politics in Venezuela and around the world, it is difficult to even point this out when such an emancipatory politics has ceased to exist. As things stand, it is as if the only perspective from which to point out the incompetence, authoritarianism, corruption, and most of all, the hypocrisy of the regime, is from a desire to return to the incompetent, authoritarian, and corrupt neoliberal order that preceded it. And as things stand, such a return is the only possible result of the end of Chavez’s rule. Must the Left simply hold its nose in solidarity for what might or might not be the lesser of two evils? Should it just be glad and thank the heavens that something somewhere looks remotely like its distorted memory of what socialist revolution used to be?
Seasoned personages of the anti-capitalist Left are aware that their politics have run out of steam, and that self-deceiving optimism is the only option. In his book Pirates of the Caribbean, the 1960s radical Tariq Ali depicts Chavez, Fidel Castro, and Evo Morales as a new “axis of hope” against the evils of the Washington Consensus. Meanwhile, Z Magazine contributor Gregory Wilpert continues to maintain his website venezuelanalysis.com, which reads like little more than the American public relations page for the Chavista bureaucracy. The International Socialist Organization’s Lee Sustar routinely publishes articles in support of Chavez’s PSUV and its Stalinist tactics of absorbing or destroying every other leftist organization. And Parecon author Michael Albert found no problem in signing Chavez’s farcical call for a 5th International, presumably failing to notice that among the parties invited was Mexico’s PRI, infamous for its 71-year long iron grip of the country and, among its many crimes, the notorious massacre of hundreds of protesting students in October of 1968.
For someone familiar with the history of revolutionary politics it is tempting to reproach sycophants as traitors of “real Marxism” or of “authentic socialism.” Certain Trotskyist groups would even go so far as to call these self-deceivingly optimistic intellectuals petty bourgeois anarchists, revisionists, Shachtmanites, Pabloists, or some such deviation. Unfortunately, the truth is more prosaic: the sycophants are not ideologically deviant. They are simply exhausted. They have come to terms with the fact that revolutionary anti-capitalist politics have ceased to exist as a material force in the world and are ready to grasp at the next best thing—their simulacrum. Bolivarian “21st Century Socialism” is the socialism that today’s “Left” deserves. It is the socialism that makes sense in a world where the Left is dead. It is an adequate representation of the state of emancipatory politics today.
The question stands: If authentic internationalist Marxism is dead, from what standpoint does one launch a critique of Chavez and his followers without joining the Venezuelan opposition nostalgic for neoliberalism? The only answer is history: The consciousness that the present has fallen short of what once seemed politically possible, and that this possibility could once again become available. The knowledge that there was once such a thing as an international Left that was able to intervene, transform, and lead social movements around the world in the direction of the overcoming of capitalism. The awareness that the mass politicization of the Bolivarian Revolution, which has put the word “socialism” on the lips of hundreds of thousands of working people, will end up as yet another wasted opportunity if such a Left is not reconstituted.
Admittedly, this standpoint is not much to start with. It is clearly not as immediately gratifying as the self-deceiving “optimism” of supposedly Marxist publications such as the International Socialist Review and the Monthly Review. But the game they are playing is no more than a spectator sport. Cheering for team Chavez is a way for such post-mortem leftists to hold on to dear life. It is how they justify their existence and convince themselves that they are still serving a purpose: The good fight is still being fought; even if they are helpless, they can be complacent in this helplessness, since they can always look at the next populist strongman or, even better, wait for the next American invasion of a Third World country to give them a new lease on life. But if we are to reconstitute an international revolutionary Left, the first step will be to stop kidding ourselves. People continue to struggle, but the struggle to overcome capitalism has not really been sustained. Revolutions with a hope of actually overcoming capitalism around the world are now a distant memory, at best. The current changes in Venezuela cannot contribute to any real revolution until a genuine Left challenges the regime that has instituted them. But such a feat will be impossible if we do not finally get it into our heads that the fatalistic slogan, “¡Patria, socialismo o muerte!” means the exact opposite of the visionary words, “¡Proletarios de todos los países, uníos!” |P
. James Surowiecki, “Synergy with the Devil,” The New Yorker, January 2007, <www.newyorker.com/talk/financial/2007/01/08/070108ta_talk_surowiecki>.