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Venezuela: A Good Example of the Bad Left of Latin America

Michael A. Lebowitz is author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review Press, 2006), and The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review Press, forthcoming in 2008). Portions of this essay were presented as “Going Beyond Survival: Making the Social Economy a Real Alternative” at the Fourth International Meeting of the Solidarity Economy, July 21–23, 2006, at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Fair wages, a fair day’s work! Through their struggles within capitalism, it has often been possible for workers and citizens to secure themselves some share of the benefits of social labor. Capitalist globalization and the offensive of neoliberal state policies, however, have encroached upon all those gains from past struggles; and the answer to those who were surprised to find those victories ephemeral was the mantra of TINA—there is no alternative.

Yet, as the devastation of the capitalist offensive has become obvious, opposition has emerged especially in Latin America. We warned you this would happen, say the hucksters and self-promoters; instead of the good times ahead promised from the neoliberal medicine prescribed from the 1980s on, Latin America experienced (in the words of Jorge G. Castañeda) “the persistence of dismal poverty, inequality, high unemployment, a lack of competitiveness, and poor infrastructure” (“Latin America’s Left Turn,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2006). The left (“rightly foretold” by the prophets) has returned.

This means that hope has returned. Working people around the world look to Latin America these days for the demonstration that there is an alternative, that a better world is possible. But, are they right to look to Latin America? Is a real alternative emerging or is it merely a negotiation of better terms in the implicit contract with capitalist globalization? Is Latin America breaking with capitalism or is it struggling for fairness?

The Good Left and the Bad Left

Of course, we know that all lefts are not the same. And, indeed, that is a constant theme among commentators of all varieties. While few would divide Latin America in accordance with dietary practices as did Alvaro Vargas Llosa (Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Evo Morales being designated as “carnivores”—Washington Post, August 6, 2006), for many there is simply the Good Left and the Bad Left. What they have in common, according to Castañeda, is that they stress “social improvements,” “egalitarian distribution of wealth,” “sovereignty,” and “democracy” (over the presumed opposite package of macroeconomic orthodoxy, wealth creation, international cooperation, and governmental effectiveness). What makes the Bad Left bad, though, is essentially described by one word—“populism.”

When they hear the term populism, Latin American intellectuals reach for their incense. Partly that is because the term conveys people, masses, the unwashed in motion. When Castañeda declares populism to be “nationalist, strident, and close-minded,” it is hard not to think of this as his description of the masses themselves. But, there is more to it (or, rather, there is another aspect of this). When he describes as among the characteristics of populists in power that they “nationalized large sectors of their countries’ economies, extending well beyond the so-called commanding heights” and captured “natural resource or monopoly rents, which allowed them to spend money on the descamisados, the ‘shirtless,’ without raising taxes on the middle class,” you know that what makes the Bad Left really bad is its attack on capital.

Small wonder, then, that the Good Left is said to include the governments of Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil (and maybe even Nestor Kirchner’s Argentina), while the Bad Left invariably revolves around Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Given that the distance from Chávez appears to be the true measure of all things, one might conclude that Ecuador’s Rafael Correa will also fall into the category of the Bad.

Yet, here is where this classification system breaks down. How do we distinguish between an attack on capitalism as such and an attack on the current policies and practices of capitalism? Between a struggle for a new economic system, on the one hand, and a struggle for fairness on the part of international creditors, in trade relations, and in the distribution of resource rents, on the other? Distinguishing between these may be harder than it appears at first sight.

After all, even a process of despotic inroads upon capital (of a long march which wrests, “by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie,” in the words of Marx and Engels) is certain to be described as mere reformism by those for whom anything less than storming the heights immediately—nationalizing everything with workers’ control now—is  simply acquiescence to international capital. Abstract idealists for whom the correlation of forces (internal and external) and the concept of process mean less than the pamphlets they have underlined always sing the same tune of betrayal (changing only the names of those who have spurned their overtures). But, it does not mean that they are wrong in particular cases.

How can we identify an attack on capitalism as such? Is an alternative to capitalism being built in the new left governments of Latin America?

Identifying an Alternative to Capitalism

What constitutes a real alternative to capitalism? I suggest that it is a society in which the explicit goal is not the growth of capital or of the material means of production but, rather, human development itself—the growth of human capacities. We can see this perspective embodied in the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela—in Article 299’s emphasis upon “ensuring overall human development,” in the declaration of Article 20 that “everyone has the right to the free development of his or her own personality,” and in the focus of Article 102 upon “developing the creative potential of every human being and the full exercise of his or her personality in a democratic society.”

In these passages (which are by no means the whole of that constitution), there is the conception of a real alternative—an economy whose logic is not the logic of capital. “The social economy,” President Hugo Chávez said in September 2003, “bases its logic on the human being, on work, that is to say, on the worker and the worker’s family, that is to say, in the human being.” That social economy, he continued, does not focus on economic gain, on exchange values; rather, “the social economy generates mainly use-value.” Its purpose is “the construction of the new man, of the new woman, of the new society.”

These are beautiful ideas and beautiful words, but they are, of course, only ideas and words. The first set comes from a constitution and the second comes from the regular national educational seminar known as Aló Presidente. How can such ideas and words be made real? Let me suggest four preconditions for the realization of this alternative to capitalism.

(1) Any discussion of structural change must begin from an understanding of the existing structure—in short, from an understanding of capitalism. We need to grasp that the logic of capital, the logic in which profit rather than satisfaction of the needs of human beings is the goal, dominates both where it fosters the comparative advantage of repression and also where it accepts an increase in slave rations.

(2) It is essential to attack the logic of capital ideologically. In the absence of the development of a mass understanding of the nature of capital—that capital is the result of the social labor of the collective worker—the need to survive the ravages of neoliberal and repressive policies produces only the desire for a fairer society, the search for a better share for the exploited and excluded: in short, barbarism with a human face.

(3) A critical aspect in the battle to go beyond capitalism is the recognition that human capacity develops only through human activity, only through what Marx understood as “revolutionary practice,” the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change. Real human development does not drop from the sky in the form of money to support survival or the expenditures of popular governments upon education and health. In contrast to populism, which produces people who look to the state for all answers and to leaders who promise everything, the conception which truly challenges the logic of capital in the battle of ideas is one which explicitly recognizes the centrality of self-management in the workplace and self-government in the community as the means of unleashing human potential—i.e., the idea of socialism for the twenty-first century.

(4) But, the idea of this socialism cannot displace real capitalism. Nor can dwarfish islands of cooperation change the world by competing successfully against capitalist corporations. You need the power to foster the new productive relations while truncating the reproduction of capitalist productive relations. You need to take the power of the state away from capital, and you need to use that power when capital responds to encroachments—when capital goes on strike, you must be prepared to move in rather than give in. Winning the “battle of democracy” and using “political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie” remains as critical now as when Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto.

Consider these preconditions. Are they being met by the new Latin American governments on the left? On the contrary, for the most part, we can see the familiar characteristics of social democracy—which does not understand the nature of capital, does not attack the logic of capital ideologically, does not believe that there is a real alternative to capitalism, and, not surprisingly, gives in when capital threatens to go on strike.

“We can’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs,” announced the social democratic premier of British Columbia in Canada (in the 1970s when I was party policy chairman). Here, crystallized, is the ultimate wisdom of social democracy—the manner in which social democracy enforces the logic of capital and ideologically disarms and demobilizes people.

Venezuela, however, is going in a different direction at this point. While the Bolivarian Revolution did not start out to build a socialist alternative (and its continuation along this path is contested every step of the way), it is both actively rejecting the logic of capital and also ideologically arming and mobilizing people to build that alternative.

The Initial Venezuelan Path

Although the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 focused upon the development of human capacity, it also retained the support for capitalism of earlier constitutions. That constitution guarantees the right of property (Article 115), identifies a role for private initiative in generating growth and employment (Article 299), and calls upon the state to promote private initiative (Article 112). And, support for continued capitalist development was precisely the direction of the initial plan developed for 2001–07. While rejecting neoliberalism and stressing the importance of the state presence in strategic industries, the focus of that plan was to encourage investment by private capital—both domestic and foreign—by creating an “atmosphere of trust.”

To this was to be added the development of a “social economy”—conceived as an “alternative and complementary road” to the private sector and the public sector. But, it is significant how little a role was conceived for self-managing and cooperative activities. Essentially, this was a program to incorporate the informal sector into the social economy; it is necessary, the plan argued, “to transform the informal workers into small managers.” Accordingly, family, cooperative, and self-managed micro-enterprises were to be encouraged through training and micro-financing (from institutions such as the Women’s Development Bank) and by reducing regulations and tax burdens. The goal of the state was explicitly described as one of “creating an emergent managerial class.”

The social economy, thus, was to play the role it plays in Brazil and elsewhere—islands of cooperation nurtured by states, NGOs, Grameen-type banks, and church charities and serving as positive shock absorbers for the economic and political effects of capitalist globalization. Of course, if seriously pursued, this could make things easier for the unemployed and excluded, the half of the Venezuelan working class in the informal sector, by providing them with a better opportunity for survival. But, the social economy was not envisioned in the 2001–07 plan as an alternative to capitalism (except insofar as survival within the nooks and crannies of global capitalism constitutes an alternative).

A Third Way for Venezuela: it would turn its back on neoliberalism, would change the distribution of oil rents by acting against the state within the state that was the national oil company (PDVSA), and would move via an active state in the direction of the “endogenous development” supported by structuralist economists. The goal, in short, was a different capitalism. The Bolivarian Revolution at its outset clearly belonged in the Good Left.

But, it also contained a potential subversive element—its theme of human development. The Bolivarian Constitution is unequivocal in indicating that human beings develop their capacity only through their own activity. Not only does Article 62 declare that participation by people is “the necessary way of achieving the involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective,” but that constitution specifically focuses upon democratic planning and participatory budgeting at all levels of society and (as in Article 70) upon “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” as examples of “forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity.” With its emphasis upon a “democratic, participatory and protagonistic” society, the Bolivarian Constitution definitely contains the seeds of the social economy, the seeds of socialism for the twenty-first century.

And, those seeds didn’t drop from the sky. They came from the social movements that were allied with Hugo Chávez’s struggle to throw out the Fourth Republic (and that, through membership in the new Constituent Assembly, introduced those seeds directly into the constitution); and, they came from the self-described “subversive in Miraflores” himself—Chávez, the prisoner who wrote in 1993, “the sovereign people must transform itself into the object and the subject of power. This option is not negotiable for revolutionaries.”

Of course, contradictory elements such as those found in the Bolivarian Constitution are not unique, and potentially subversive seeds often produce nothing. We are all familiar with governments elected as agencies of working people which, once elected, send the people home to rest for the next election. Further, there is much sad experience with the manner in which those social movements then proceed to self-police themselves—with the result that the seeds wither. In Venezuela, however, class struggle nurtured the seeds of that social economy so that it increasingly was seen as the alternative to capitalist development.

To begin with, Chávez broke with the expectations of many (including opportunistic supporters) by attempting to fulfill some of his promises. And, although measures such a new hydrocarbon tax (increasing royalties on new oil production) which would allow the government to pursue its Third Way orientation were not an attack on capitalism as such, they produced a dynamic effect which went far beyond the initiative of the government. Chávez’s determination to proceed despite opposition within his own camp and the response of Venezuela’s pampered oligarchy (supported fully by U.S. imperialism)—first through its coup of April 2002 and then through the bosses’ lockout of the winter of 2002–03—not only mobilized the masses in workplaces and communities behind Chávez but also convinced him that capitalism could not be a basis for human development. The Bolivarian Revolution from this point on started to forge a path moving away from capitalism.

A New Path

With the revival of government revenues in the latter part of 2003—following the effective re-nationalization of PDVSA, the state oil company—new programs (missions) in health and education began to demonstrate the real commitment of the Bolivarian government to wipe out the enormous social debt it had inherited. Further, Mission Mercal, building upon the experience of government distribution of food during the general lockout, started in early 2004 to provide significantly subsidized food to the poor. Soon after came Mission Vuelvan Caras—a program for radical endogenous development oriented to building new human capacities by both teaching specific skills and preparing people to enter into new productive relations through courses in cooperation and self-management. Its effect was dramatic: the number of cooperatives increased from under 800 when Chávez was first elected in 1998 to almost 84,000 by August 2005.

All this occurred in the context of Chávez’s attack upon the “perverse logic” of capital and his stress upon the alternative—that social economy whose purpose is “the construction of the new man, of the new woman, of the new society.” The deepening of this ideological offensive was marked by the renaming of the social economy as socialism. In January 2005 at the World Social Forum, Chávez explicitly called for the reinventing of socialism—one different from what existed in 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.”

Six months later, influenced by István Mészáros’s Beyond Capital, he stressed the importance of building a new communal system of production and consumption—one in which there is an exchange of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes. We have to “help to create it, from the popular bases, with the participation of the communities, through the community organizations, the cooperatives, self-management and different ways to create this system.” The occasion was the creation of a new institution—the Empresas de Producción Social (EPS). Drawn from a number of sources—existing cooperatives (pledged to commit themselves to the community rather than only collective self-interest), smaller state enterprises, and private firms anxious to obtain access to state business and favorable credit terms—these new enterprises of social production were to be committed both to serving community needs and also to incorporating worker participation.

In 2006, a new building block was added: the communal councils (based upon 200–400 families in existing urban neighborhoods and 20–50 in the rural areas). These were established to diagnose democratically community needs and priorities. With the shift of substantial resources from municipal levels to the community level, the support of new communal banks for local projects, and a size which permits the general assembly rather than elected representatives to be the supreme decision-making body, the councils have been envisioned as a basis not only for the transformation of people in the course of changing circumstances but also for productive activity which really is based upon communal needs and communal purposes.

With Chávez’s re-election in December 2006 on the explicit theme of building a new socialism, these new councils have been identified as the fundamental cell of Bolivarian socialism and the basis for a new state. “All power to the communal councils!” Chávez declared. An “explosion in communal power” has been designated as the fifth of the “five motors” driving toward socialism. The logic is one of a profound decentralization of decision-making and power; and, as with the third motor, “Moral y Luces” (Morality and Enlightenment) a major educational and ideological campaign, the consistent theme is the stress upon revolutionary practice in order to build socialism.* Citing Marx and Che Guevera, Chávez has insisted (Aló Presidente, no. 279, March 27, 2007) that it is only through practice that new socialist human beings produce themselves.

The kind of practice required is not that which is based upon self-interest (the “infection,” the virus inherited from capitalism) and on production for the purpose of exchange. Rather, what is essential is practice in producing directly for society’s needs and building communal solidarity. In this respect, the third motor of ideological struggle, and the democratic transformative practices embodied in the fifth motor’s explosion of communal power, can be viewed as two sides of the same coin and requiring each other. Without the side of ideological struggle, the focus upon needs becomes a struggle for old needs, the values generated within capitalist society; and without transformative democratic practices, the ideological appeals alone lead ultimately to a combination of commandism and cynicism.

Socialist practice, though, is not to be conceived as only occurring within communities. Since his re-election, Chávez has stressed what he calls “the elementary triangle” of socialism: units of social property, social production, and satisfaction of the needs of communities. Will capitalism provide boots for poor children? Capitalism, he has noted, says the market will solve this, but in socialism we can plan to produce these directly for the children who need good boots. Chávez, thus, has taken a further step: while continuing to stress the importance of worker participation, he argues that it is not sufficient; it is necessary, for example, to guide cooperatives to move increasingly to become units of social property and to produce directly for communal needs.

This emphasis upon the “elementary triangle” also reflects an explicit self-criticism, a criticism of the government’s missteps in dealing with recovered factories and in developing the companies of social production (EPS). We made errors, Chávez noted—the new forms did not go beyond capitalism. Thus, the new stress is not only upon social production but also social property. And the guarantor of social property (i.e., property of the society) must be the state—“the Social State, not the bourgeois state, not the capitalist state” (Aló Presidente, no. 264, January 28, 2007).

There can be little doubt that a battle of ideas against capitalism and for the creation of a new socialism with new values is well underway. Not only is there the growing articulation of characteristics of socialism for the twenty-first century but also the development of a mass consciousness—spread through Chávez’s televised speeches and the new ideological campaign. Of course, as indicated above, “the idea of this socialism cannot displace real capitalism.”

Using political supremacy to build new productive relations

More than a battle of ideas, though, is taking place in Venezuela. In addition to the expansion of state sectors in oil and basic industry, the new era beginning in 2007 already has been marked by the nationalization of strategic sectors such as communications, electric power, and the recovery of the dominant position for the state in the heavy oil fields where multinational firms had previously prevailed. Further, the offensive against the latifundia has resumed with several recent land seizures. New state companies (including joint ventures with state firms from countries such as Iran) intended to produce means of production like tractors have been created.

Much more, however, needs to be done: if the Venezuelan economy is to be transformed and freed from its dependence upon oil, new productive sectors (in agriculture and industry) and a new infrastructure that can open vast parts of the interior of the country must be developed. The resources are there, and so is a working class either largely unemployed or in the informal sector by default (i.e., part of the reserve army of labor). If the Bolivarian Revolution is serious about pursuing the process of extensive development, though, an inevitable tendency will be to plan and administer this process from above through the state.

But, where will self-management, co-management, and worker management—“forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity”—fit in? In fact, the experience in the state sector has not been encouraging: with the exception of the aluminum firm ALCASA and the electrical distribution firm in the Andes (CADELA), worker management in the state sector has been thwarted and has moved backward in what are called “strategic” state industries (especially PDVSA itself). Rather than a process in which workers have been transforming themselves in production through self-management, they have been dominated from the top through the hierarchical patterns characteristic of state capitalist and statist firms. And these reversals have demoralized militant workers, confining them to the adversarial role that they play in capitalism. All the self-oriented tendencies of the old society (which in Venezuela means the struggle to capture rents) are reinforced.

The promise now is that this pattern will change—that the motor of Moral y Luces will involve both ideological education and training for worker management in all enterprises (through a transforming of the workday to include education) and that workers’ councils will be legislated in all enterprises not only to take on more and more functions of management but also to be oriented toward communal needs. Certainly, these themes are exciting: clear moves toward democratic, participatory, and protagonistic production are essential if people are not to remain the fragmented, crippled human beings that capitalism produces. Yet, the gap between promises from the top and the realization of promises in practice is often very significant in Venezuela; and, in this particular case, experience to date indicates that there is considerable resistance from managers and ministers to this loss of control from above.

Unfortunately, to counter this problem and to make those promises real, there is no unified collective subject making demands from below for workers’ control. Not only is the organized working class outside of state administration small (given the pattern of economic development and neoliberalism over the last half century), but intense factional struggles within the Chavist labor movement (UNT) have effectively crippled the organized working class as a major actor for now.

Who, then, are the subjects of this revolutionary process? Attention has turned to developments in the communities, to building the new communal councils, linking them and stressing their potential to organize the process of satisfying the needs of communities. For, certainly, there are active subjects within the communities—people who have developed individually and collectively through their struggles and continue to do so.

But, what kind of socialism rests upon communities and communal needs rather than upon the character of relations within the workplace? Do communal relations displace productive relations in this new socialism for the twenty-first century? Does the system of needs dominate the system of labors here?

One should not exclude this idea by definition. Certainly, in capitalism, in the statism of the Soviet Union, and also in the self-managed enterprises of Yugoslavia, the goals of those within the sphere of production drove the system and dominated it. Perhaps, then, the “primacy of needs” that Mészáros (Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition, 1995, 835) identifies is the appropriate lever with which to move the world in the direction of socialism for the twenty-first century.

Yet, while the focus upon communal councils and communal needs provides an obvious contrast to the production-orientation of the past, the difference may be more apparent than real. Why not think of this process as the emergence of a new social relation—the development of a relation of solidarity among the collective producers? Remember that merchant capital and money-lending capital emerged as a social relation before capital invaded the process of production. Why, then, could not self-conscious collective workers (i.e., producers conscious of their unity) emerge as the social relation that could ultimately dominate the sphere of production? Certainly, the concept of associated producers has always been envisioned as the socialist relation of production. Never precisely clear, though, is how this new relation emerges—or, more accurately, what are the ways in which it develops?

Once we think about the communal councils as sites where people produce not only solutions to their needs but also produce themselves as collective workers for themselves, then it is possible to see a definite link between the explosion of communal power and Moral y Luces and the other major campaign of this moment—the creation of the new unified socialist party. In Build it Now, I argued the need for a party from below that can continue the process of revolutionary democracy essential to building this new type of socialism. Few (including the writer) were prepared, though, for the scope of Chávez’s announcement shortly after his December 2006 re-election that the new party would not unify the existing Chavist parties but, rather, would be something entirely different—a party built from the base, starting from communities and neighborhoods, the most democratic in Venezuelan history.

Certainly, the democratic character of the party-building process now underway goes well beyond expectations. Although the numbers signing up to join the new party at booths around the country may fall short of the four million some hoped for, this new party of socialism will be the largest party ever created in Venezuela (and a far cry from the cadre party demanded by assorted dinosaurs on the old left). Once consolidated in groups of 200, their spokespersons are to begin in August a three-month process of developing the party program (with constant consultation with their groups); and a referendum of all members on December 2 would vote on that program. Not until mid-2008 would the party leadership be determined. What will that new leadership look like? Chávez’s hope clearly is that it will incorporate the natural leaders of the communities. “The new party,” he said in December, “cannot be the sum of old faces. That would be a deceit.”

The explosion of communal power and the process of building this new party have much in common. Both are mobilizing large numbers of people and have a common enemy in the clientalism and corruption which continue to infect the Fifth Republic; both potentially challenge those people in party and state for whom development of the capabilities and capacities of the masses is not as compelling as the desire for the accumulation of power and comfort for their families; and both reflect the link between Chávez and the masses, a dialectic in which Chávez openly calls upon people to take power (“the multitude, the multitude!”) and is in turn driven forward by the needs and demands of the people themselves.

But, what about socialist productive relations? To the degree that the two motors and the building of the unified socialist party of Venezuela (provisionally designated the PSUV) are successful in building the capabilities and capacities of the masses and strengthening a new social relation of collective producers, the invasion of the sphere of production by this relation is inevitable: the same people who are transforming themselves “into the object and the subject of power” in their communities are not likely to settle for less in their workplaces or in decisions in society as a whole. In fact, the process is already beginning—with the linking of communal councils with both local cooperatives and state enterprises in order to direct production to meet local needs. To the extent that workers’ councils and communal councils begin coordinating their activity, the collective producers will be well on their way to seizing possession of production.

However, the success of this process is not at all inevitable. There are, as there have always been within the Bolivarian Revolution, powerful tendencies that point in the opposite direction. Not only the strong inclination of government ministers and managers in important state sectors to plan and direct everything from above (a pattern which has successfully crippled independent workers’ movements) and not only the continuing culture of corruption and clientalism which can be the basis for the emergence of a new oligarchy. There is also a very clear tendency which supports the growth of a domestic capitalist class as one leg upon which the Bolivarian Revolution must walk for the foreseeable future.

No Chavists these days, of course, openly argue that socialism for the twenty-first century should depend upon capital. Rather, all insist that the process at this point requires the Bolivarian Revolution to tame private capital through “socialist conditionality”—i.e., by establishing new ground rules as conditions under which private capital can serve the revolution. In its best versions, this may be seen as a process of transition, that process of making “despotic inroads” and wresting, “by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie.” Certainly, measures such as opening the books, imposing workers’ councils with power, demanding accountability to communal councils, and transforming the workday by introducing education for worker management introduce an alien logic into capitalism—the logic of new socialist productive relations within capitalist firms.

However, the lack of clarity as to the nature of those ground rules means that mixed signals are being sent out. The “realistic” message that Venezuela is likely to have a “mixed economy” for a long time, that there is a place for private capital in the Bolivarian Revolution, and that a sufficient condition for access to state business and state credit is a commitment by capital to the interests of communities and workers has brought with it the formation of organizations such as Conseven, the “Confederation of Socialist Industrialists,” and other private capitalist organizations busily defining private capital as socialist property. “Productive socialism,” it is being said in meetings of “Chavist” capitalists around the country, requires private capitalists as part of the socialist model.

In this case, rather than the “elementary triangle” of socialism (units of social property, organized by workers through social production, for the satisfaction of communal needs), what is strengthened is the capitalist triangle: private ownership of the means of production, exploitation of wage laborers, for the purpose of profits. However lofty the language of social responsibility, the pursuit of profits dominates: commitment to the community becomes, effectively, a tax, and worker participation becomes shares in the company to induce workers to commit themselves to producing profits. As may be seen from the disappointing experience of the EPS (which has followed this pattern), capital accepts these constraints as conditions in order to ensure its right to exploit and generate profits until it is strong enough itself to impose capitalist conditionality.

The Bolivarian Revolution, like all revolutionary processes, produces its own potential gravediggers. To the extent that it fosters the infection of the logic of capital, the Bolivarian Revolution does not walk on two legs but, rather, has one leg walking backward. When we acknowledge that this tendency is flourishing within the process and add it to the continuing pattern of clientalism and corruption, the remaining enclaves of old capitalist power (in banking, import-processing, land-ownership, and the media), and the constant presence and threat of U.S. imperialism, it is obvious that there are formidable barriers to the struggle for socialism in Venezuela.

And, yet, it moves. The Bolivarian Revolution has driven beyond the barriers constantly placed before it (and has itself developed qualitatively in the process) precisely because of its dialectic between leadership and the movement of masses. That is why the development of the collective worker through the explosion of communal power, the ideological campaign of Moral y Luces, and the mobilization of a new party from below are essential for the next steps. The support of masses and the continued willingness of the Bolivarian leadership to move in rather than give in when capital goes on strike (as it inevitably does) drives the revolution forward. As the response to the recent attempt by capital to challenge price controls on food (through manufactured shortages and sales above ceiling prices) reveals, the dialectic of leadership and movement from below ensures the deepening of this process—if you see the supermarkets speculating, came the word from the government, the communal councils should take them over and run them.

Going Beyond Fairness

What about the other new Latin American left governments? Are they attacking capitalism as such? In some cases, there appears to be no struggle at all. The Really Good Left is one that behaves. But where there are indications of conflict, how do we distinguish between a struggle for a new economic system and the struggle for fairness?

Those who defend the actions of other Latin American governments often stress the correlation of forces preventing them (for the moment) from making the despotic inroads against capital that they otherwise would pursue. It is not an argument that can be dismissed a priori. There may indeed be conditions which require a government to move slowly. Yet, the central question has never been about pace but direction. Are the actions undertaken those which help to reveal the nature of capital, attack it ideologically, and mobilize the working classes—increasing their capacities and powers? Or, do they discipline and demobilize social movements, mystify capital through lack of transparency, and use the state to enforce on behalf of capital (rather than use the state to make those inroads—however “economically insufficient and untenable” they may appear)?

The issue, in short, is not whether these governments begin by struggling for fairness. Recall that the Bolivarian Revolution began as a Good Left (although one with a bit of an attitude). And, while its initial reforms did not go beyond capitalism, they nevertheless set in motion very substantial changes. This is a phenomenon familiar in chaos theory—slight changes in initial conditions can produce dramatic results.

What produced those results? Partly it was the persistence of dismal poverty, inequality, high unemployment, and exclusion which characterizes many Latin American countries and indeed countries around the world. Partly it was the arrogance of the privileged and parasitic oligarchy—again not unique to Venezuela. What revealed the fragility of these initial conditions and determined the trajectory of the Bolivarian Revolution was the nature of the struggle to change things—a struggle which, even though bourgeois-democratic in its social content, was revolutionary; it was revolutionary because it combined masses prepared to struggle and a leadership which urged the masses forward.

In a relatively short time, the Bolivarian Revolution has come a long way. It still faces many problems, and its success will only occur as the result of struggle—not only a struggle against U.S. imperialism, the champion of barbarism around the world, which is threatened by any suggestion that there is an alternative to its rule; and, not only against the domestic oligarchy with its capitalist enclaves in the mass media, banks, processing sectors, and the latifundia. The really difficult struggle, I’ve argued, is within the Bolivarian Revolution itself—in the divergence between a would-be new Bolivarian oligarchy and the masses of excluded and exploited.

These are struggles that all Latin America faces. As I concluded in Build it Now, “every place these struggles proceed, though, will make it easier for those who have gone before and those yet to come.” Venezuela’s lesson needs to be understood and communicated widely: its focus upon human development and revolutionary practice, its missions in education and health, and its creation of communal councils as the basis for a revolutionary democratic state cannot help but inspire masses elsewhere and create the condition for a revolutionary leadership to emerge. The real lesson of the Bolivarian Revolution, though, is what can happen when there is a dialectic of masses which understand that there is an alternative and a revolutionary leadership prepared to move in rather than give in.

Some will call that populism. But, I call it the really Bad Left.

2007, Volume 59, Issue 03 (July-August)
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