On the 2004 Venezuelan Referendum

Principles & Tactics

The following is an edited version of a document adopted at the Fourth International Conference of the IBT.

Given a choice, Marxists would generally vote "yes" to removing a bourgeois government. But in the case of Venezuela today, the role of U.S. imperialism somewhat complicates the equation. There have been analogous situations in the past, when revolutionaries have not been eager to see similar attempts succeed, notably the Nazi-initiated "Red Referendum" against the Social Democratic government of Prussia, which failed when the combined efforts of the Stalinists and Nazis failed to obtain the support of the majority of the electorate. In his 25 August 1931 article on the Red Referendum, Trotsky commented:

"We have not the slightest ground for supporting Braun’s government, for taking even a shadow of responsibility for it before the masses, or even for weakening by one iota our political struggle against the government of Bruening and its Prussian agency. But we have still less ground for helping the fascists to replace the government of Bruening-Braun.

"To come out into the streets with the slogan ‘Down with the Bruening-Braun government’ at a time when, according to the relationship of forces, it can only be replaced by a government of Hitler-Hugenberg, is the sheerest adventurism. The same slogan, however, assumes an altogether different meaning if it becomes an introduction to the direct struggle of the proletariat itself for power."

We would never vote confidence in a bourgeois government, but in some situations the best course is not to participate in an attempt to bring one down, and the 2004 referendum in Venezuela is just such a case.

Marxists absolutely reject the reformist logic of supporting "lesser evil" bourgeois politicians on the grounds that their opponents are even worse. In the second round of the 2002 French presidential election, when the choice was between Chirac, a right-wing bourgeois, and Le Pen, a fascist, we condemned the Pabloites and other supposed revolutionaries who voted "against Le Pen," i.e., for Chirac, while claiming that by doing so they were defending bourgeois democracy against fascism.

The 2004 recall campaign in Venezuela is certainly an example of "democratic," low-intensity imperialist meddling in neo-colonies. Though the Venezuelan referendum was not directly organized by the U.S., the imperialists certainly supported those behind it. Some leftists argue that it was necessary to vote against removing Chávez because of the reactionary character of his opponents. But a "no" vote on the question of holding a new presidential election amounts to support for the existing bourgeois government.

There is no question that a victory by the right could have set the stage for "legalizing" wholesale attacks on working people. The defeat of the "yes" campaign led to splits and recriminations among the domestic reactionaries and their imperial backers. It also undoubtedly energized Chávez’s plebeian base, as electoral victories of popular fronts have done in the past (e.g., France 1936, Chile 1971). Workers who confidently expect "their" government to defend their interests will initially tend to be hostile to those who make leftist criticisms. But over time, as the reality becomes clear, these attitudes can change.

Ideally, there would have been a way to vote against the imperialist-backed right wingers without politically supporting Chávez, but the format of the referendum made this impossible, just as it was impossible to simply vote "against" Le Pen in the second round of the 2002 French election. The Venezuelan referendum was not an extra-legal assault by the right, but rather a parliamentary maneuver sanctioned by the "Bolivarian" constitution. This makes it rather different than the coups that deposed Chile’s Allende in 1973 or Haiti’s Aristide in 2004. Chávez accepted the challenge because he estimated, correctly, that he had enough popular support to win.

Venezuela today is a sharply polarized society in which armed conflict is a real possibility. While we give no support to Chávez’s muddled left-bonapartist/reformist program, we would certainly bloc with him militarily against any coup attempts, just as the Bolsheviks did with Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917.

A parallel can be drawn between the Venezuelan referendum and the elections organized in Nicaragua by the Sandinistas under pressure from imperialism. In that case we did not vote for the Sandanista National Liberation Front (FSLN), even though we had earlier supported it militarily against the contras and their bourgeois backers. We took the same attitude in South Africa and El Salvador when the African National Congress (ANC) and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) made the transition from resistance fighters to nationalist/leftist popular-front electoralists.

Clearly Chávez’s supporters, unlike most of the opposition, are people we would like to win over. Those who have put their faith in Chávez would certainly look askance at any group refusing to participate in the "no" campaign, but they would also expect all genuine anti-imperialists to vote for the Bolivarian slate in an election. Leftists who voted "no" to allowing Chávez’s opponents the chance to shorten his term, and then refused to vote "yes" to allowing him to complete it, would tie themselves in knots trying to explain such a contradictory position.

In approaching the referendum, Venezuelan Trotskyists would begin with the perspective of helping the working class assert its own independent political interests. Their propaganda would stress the fact that the stranglehold of U.S. imperialism and its Latin American bourgeois vassals can only be broken by the wholesale expropriation of domestic and foreign capital. Like Egypt’s Nasser, Chile’s Allende and other purveyors of radical-egalitarian "third way" fantasies, Chávez is opposed to such a course. While stressing their willingness to militarily defend his government against attacks by reactionaries, Venezuelan Bolshevik-Leninists would try to win the more leftist elements among the chavistas to the understanding that the enemies of the oppressed can only be decisively defeated by replacing the existing state with organs of workers’ rule.

In the case of extra-legal attempts by reactionaries to seize power (e.g., Kornilov in 1917, Franco in 1936 or the 2002 coup against Chávez), Marxists militarily defend the "legal" bourgeois government (in effect acting to maintain them in power, at least temporarily). But this is a very different situation than when rightists use constitutional, parliamentary channels—in such cases, electoral "blocs" amount to political support.

Something was posed in the Venezuelan referendum that was a lot more significant than a routine bourgeois election, and everyone knew it. If a similar plebiscite were to take place in Brazil, where the bourgeoisie has felt no need to resort to a coup to secure its control, the imperialist big brothers would not likely take any particular interest. They are happy enough with Lula. For the Venezuelan opposition, this parliamentary maneuver was a matter of tactical expediency, as they had already tried and failed to achieve their goals through a coup and a paralyzing national lockout.

A revolutionary organization with a following large enough to have been a real factor in the outcome could have responded to increased rightist activity with a campaign for the creation of "committees of action" along the lines of those proposed by Trotsky after the victory of the popular front in France in 1936. Revolutionaries would warn that, as the examples of Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973 demonstrate, workers’ cannot protect themselves through the ballot box. Proletarian defense guards are the only effective means to deal with the threat of violent rightist thugs, and their creation also raises the self-confidence and fighting spirit of the working class.

As Marxists, we recognize that extra-parliamentary actors sometimes assume parliamentary guises. In some situations, a constitutionally proper procedure can provide a cover for a profoundly anti-democratic development, e.g., Hitler’s ascension to the German chancellorship in 1933. But in such circumstances, almost by definition, there is no viable electoral response. While we would never vote for a Christian Democrat or Gaullist to keep a Nazi out of office, we would certainly favour vigorous mass action to negate a fascist electoral victory. We do not want Le Pen as president of France, but we are not prepared to vote for Chirac—not only out of principle, but also because we recognize that if society is that close to a National Front takeover, the idea of electoral resistance can only be a debilitating illusion. In such situations, or in case of another attempted rightist coup in Venezuela, the urgent duty of revolutionaries is to mobilize the working class for battle.

Published: 1917 No.28 (December 2005)