Letter to Fire This Time

‘Bolivarian’or Proletarian Revolution?

The following letter was sent to Fire This Time Movement for Social Justice

27 November 2004
Dear Comrades,

In your recent article, “Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Venezuela” (Fire This Time [FTT] September/October [2004]), Hugo Chavez is described as a “revolutionary” leading “the battle for working class democracy and self-determination.” We think that you have considerably overdrawn the threat posed by the Venezuelan president and his “Bolivarian revolution” to the capitalist social order.

Venezuelans of course have the right to decide their own fate without interference from Washington or Ottawa. The imperialists have demonstrated time and again that their commitment to democracy in neo-colonies only extends to pliant regimes that do what they are told. The reactionary U.S.-backed coup against Chavez in April 2002 was a perfect example of this.

Important segments of the North American bourgeoisie are hostile to Chavez because they see his government as a danger to the supremacy of the tiny layer of capitalists and landlords who ensure Venezuela’s continued subordination to global imperialism. Since coming to office in 1998, Chavez has implemented a modest land reform (transferring some unused and abandoned land from haciendas to landless peasants) and has funded an expansion of social programs with revenue from Venezuela’s oil industry. As a result of these measures millions of Venezuelans view their “negro e indio” president as a champion of the underdog.

The recognition that capitalist society is characterized by two fundamentally antagonistic social classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, must be the starting point for a Marxist analysis of the situation in Venezuela. Chavez is supported by the “have-nots”—the peasants, the urban poor and important layers of the working class. He also clearly has a base within the armed forces. But Chavez does not pretend that his Bolivarian movement has an anti-capitalist character. He is a petty-bourgeois nationalist who seeks to strengthen the position of Venezuelan capital vis-à-vis U.S. imperialism, while reducing domestic social tensions through easing the plight of the dispossessed. While his populist appeals have alienated the privileged and their hangers-on, his reform program is, in the final analysis, aimed at rationalizing, rather than eliminating, the system of capitalist exploitation. Chavez thus stands in the tradition of an earlier generation of left-talking Third World nationalists like Argentina’s Peron and Egypt’s Nasser.

In the U.S., Ralph Nader can make radical sounding criticisms of the exploiters and their imperial foreign policy, but, as you observed in the same issue of FTT: “Although Nader often denounces the behavior of corporations, he never addresses the root of these problems. He attributes them to everything but the capitalist system itself.” Chavez’s denunciations of social injustice have a similar character, a fact that has not escaped the notice of more far-sighted members of the corporate elite, as you also pointed out:

“The other factor though is that a group of international corporations who have been doing business with Venezuela for years even before Chavez, in spite of many ‘extreme’ measures taken by Chavez, prefer to do business with his government. The reason is that they see Chavez government [as a] stable government [that] guarantees the possibilities of investment and making very reasonable profit, while a Venezuela without Chavez would be in chaos without perceivable future, which puts everything in risk.”

Unlike Fidel Castro, whose one-party state rests on collectivized (proletarian) property forms, i.e., the expropriation of the assets of the Cuban capitalist class and their imperialist godfathers, Hugo Chavez purports to be wielding the existing bourgeois state (which Marx considered a mechanism of oppression that must be smashed) as an instrument for social justice. When Tariq Ali asked Chavez to sum up his political philosophy, he replied:

“I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. All that must be revised. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so.”
CounterPunch, 16 August 2004

Chavez’s regime can be compared to the left-talking Provisional Government that came to power in Russia after the Czar was overthrown by a mass popular revolt in February 1917. Initially the Bolshevik leaders on the spot adopted a policy of supporting the new administration “insofar as it struggles against reaction.” Upon his return from exile, Lenin argued for a very different approach. In his controversial “April Theses” he rejected any support to the government, and advocated a position of intransigent political opposition. His third thesis was unambiguous: “No support for the Provisional Government.” Lenin’s struggle to politically rearm the Bolshevik Party with this program was an indispensable precondition for the successful workers’ revolution in October.

The attempt, in August 1917, by the ultra-reactionary General Kornilov to overthrow Alexander Kerensky, the “moderate socialist” head of the Provisional Government, was in many ways analogous to the April 2002 rightist coup against Chavez. The Bolsheviks formed a united front with Kerensky against Kornilov, but did not change their political attitude to the government:

Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.

“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’stroops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference. It is rather a subtle difference, but it is highly essential and must not be forgotten.”
— Lenin, “To the Central Committee of the R.S.D.L.P.,” 30 August 1917

The distinction Lenin made between military and political support is an important one. Socialists must bloc militarily with Venezuela’s nationalist government against any repetition of the April 2002 coup, or any attacks by the imperialists or their stooges. But, as in Russia in 1917, no political support can be given to the administrators of the capitalist state. The complete political and organizational independence of the working class is the absolute prerequisite for proletarian socialist revolution.

The limited land reform implemented so far by Chavez may have angered the big landlords, but it did not significantly change the grossly inegalitarian social structure of the countryside. Three percent of the farms still have 77 percent of the arable land, and according to Le Monde Diplomatique (October 2003) there is growing frustration among the peasants at the slow pace of the distribution process under the Instituto Nacional de Tierras (INTI). Meanwhile death squads and paramilitary gangs paid for by the big landowners are already operating in the states of Zulia, Barinas, Táchira and Apure. These sinister groups are the vanguard of bloody reaction that threatens the workers’ movement and all the oppressed.

The Venezuelan workers and peasants need to create their own self-defense organizations to deal with this danger. Rather than endlessly waiting for INTI to dole out a few scraps, revolutionaries should advocate that poor peasants and agricultural proletarians elect representative councils, allied with similar formations in the urban working class, to carry out the expropriation of the terratenientes’ estates and thus break the power of the reactionary landowners. Such a move would surely be viewed sympathetically by soldiers from the countryside.

The Chavez government sometimes refers favorably to the idea of workers’ control in the economy, yet it remains firmly committed to protecting capitalist property. This is an impossible contradiction, because the interests of workers and bosses are fundamentally incompatible—one can rule only at the expense of the other. Recently there have been a series of workplace occupations in Venezuela in response to plant closures and unpaid wages. The creation of democratically-elected workers’ committees in every enterprise, coordinated at the municipal and regional level, and linked to poor peasants’ councils, would create the framework for organizing production and distribution independently of the bosses.

A revolutionary socialist party would advocate the expropriation of foreign and domestic capitalists and the political rule of workers’ councils linked to the organizations of all the oppressed. Rooted in the industrial proletariat of the big cities, a Leninist vanguard party would seek to show in practice, as well as through its propaganda, that only a workers’ government can solve the fundamental problems of Venezuela’s dispossessed indigenous peoples, the urban poor and other oppressed sectors.

To fight for power, the working class needs its own political party. Such a party must be completely independent of all wings of the bourgeoisie, including the supposedly “progressive” elements currently backing Chavez. In preparation for its inevitable future confrontation with a resurgent bourgeoisie, the Venezuelan workers’ movement, if it is to avoid the tragic fate of the Chilean proletariat in 1973, must create its own organs of self-defense. It must also actively promote differentiation within the military along class lines and seek to neutralize as many officers as possible.

The social liberation of Venezuela’s working people and all those oppressed by capitalism requires the construction of a combat party armed with the program of intransigent class struggle elaborated by V. I. Lenin in April 1917. This is the only road to workers’ power.

Revolutionary Greetings,
International Bolshevik Tendency

Posted: 30 March 2005
Published: 1917 No.27 (May 2005)