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The Venezuelan revolution and the need for solidarity

By Stuart Munckton

Stuart Munckton is the national coordinator of the Australian socialist youth organisation Resistance. This the text of a talk presented to a Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) educational conference in January 2005.


From anti-imperialism to anti-capitalism

Anti-capitalist trajectory

Is the leadership revolutionary?

The struggle for state power


Katherine Lahey, a solidarity activist from the US who recently spent months in Venezuela in order to find out more about the Bolivarian revolution, wrote in an email circulated on the Cyber Circle web site about her experiences: "I arrived here with a vision of Venezuelan democracy that sought reinforcement from what I had read in the alternative media, and with an open palate that yearned to taste what 'freedom' really was all about." She went on to write, "In my first week here, I remained wide-eyed everywhere we went, 24-7, as my dream of witnessing and experiencing the people's revolutionary organizing projects came true before me."

A December 24 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Visible hand to fix Venezuela" gives an indication of just what is scaring the daylights out of imperialism, detailing a scene that is being repeated in cooperatives and popular organisations throughout the country:

Earlier this year, the [state-run oil company, PDVSA] turned an empty fuel-storage depot into a development zone dubbed the Fabricio Ojeda Endogenous Development Nucleus. The centre boasts clothing and bootmaking cooperatives, a state-of-the-art clinic and school, a food market and a 10-acre farm built on a steep hillside in the middle of the city's slums.

At one recent training session, a group of mostly middle-age women workers, dressed in white blouses and blue pants, cut cloth for T-shirts. A [PDVSA] employee, Omar Ruiz, gave 18 co-op members a primer on the flaws of capitalism. Mr. Ruiz encouraged his students to imagine a regular factory. They soon came to the conclusion that the owner, played by their short, bearded teacher, was appropriating the fruit of their labor. "They realize they are very poor and I am very rich," said Mr. Ruiz. "Then we change that by setting up an alternative, non-capitalist model, and everybody wins."

The oil industry helping run and provide the resources for the cooperative and its classes about the evils of capitalism was, a few short year ago, a more or less model neoliberal company. It was state owned in name only, dedicated to selling cheap oil to US corporations, preparing the groundwork for privatisation and increasing foreign control of Venezuelan oil, and feathering the nests of the corrupt management. Now it is teaching workers about the reality of capitalist exploitation. No wonder the imperialists are upset.

The Venezuelan revolution is the first of the 21st century, the first since the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the defeat of the revolutionary wave that swept Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, symbolised by the defeat of the Sandinistas in the Nicaraguan elections of 1990. Francis Fukuyama, the conservative historian who, in 1993, famously advanced the theory that history was over and capitalism was eternally victorious, deserves to be feeling a little silly.

For revolutionaries, a living revolution demands attention. We have a duty, first of all, to build solidarity with this burgeoning revolution, but also to attempt to study and analyse it, to draw what conclusions we can from the struggle.

The comrades who formed Resistance, and later the Socialist Workers League, predecessor to the DSP, were inspired by and studied the Vietnamese and Cuban revolutions. The Nicaraguan revolution played a similar role in the 1980s. The Venezuelan revolution has the potential to play a similar role for a new generation. By studying the revolution as it develops, a new generation can develop a better understanding of what revolutions mean and how they unfold, lessons that can be applied according to local conditions in their own countries.

To understand the Venezuelan revolution and how it has developed, you have to understand imperialism and how it determines so much of global politics and struggle. Che Guevara, in his 1960 article "Cuba: Exceptional case or vanguard in the struggle against colonialism?", explains the impact of imperialism on the nations it oppresses:

For us, the peoples of America, they have another polite and refined term: "underdeveloped".

What is "underdeveloped"?

A dwarf with an enormous head and a swollen chest is "underdeveloped", inasmuch as his weak legs or short arms do not match the rest of his anatomy. He is the product of an abnormal formation that distorted his development. That is really what we are, we, who are politely referred to as "underdeveloped", but in truth are colonial, semicolonial or dependent countries. We are countries whose economies have been twisted by imperialism, which has abnormally developed in us those branches of industry or agriculture needed to complement its complex economy. "Underdevelopment", or distorted development, brings dangerous specialisation in raw materials, inherent in which is the threat of hunger for all our peoples. We, the underdeveloped, are also those with monoculture, with the single product, with the single market. A single product whose uncertain sale depends on a single market that imposes and fixes conditions, that is the great formula for imperialist economic domination.

Venezuela is far from the most underdeveloped nation in the world, but this description applies well to it. Its "single product" on which it is dependent is oil. Its economy is twisted around its main role as a provider of oil for the imperialist nations, especially the United States. This seems not such a bad deal at the moment because oil prices are abnormally high, but it leaves Venezuela vulnerable to the market, and oil supplies do not last forever. Also, the valuable oil reserves have been used in a way that benefits First World, predominantly US, corporations.

It is a savage indictment of the cruel reality of imperialism that Venezuela, which is the fifth largest supplier of one of the most valuable commodities on earth, in 1998 had 80 per cent of its population living in poverty. This is the direct result of imperialist domination over the economy and political structures.

Venezuela has to import 70 per cent of its food. The threat of hunger is a real one for the people when they are not even self-sufficient in food, but dependent on the uncertain sale of a single product. Getting control of the oil, then using oil wealth to break the dependency on oil, is crucial to breaking the hold of imperialism over Venezuela.

Matched by the economic domination of imperialism is its political domination of oppressed nations. This can take many forms. The outright colonial rule of times past is no longer viable, but there are many other methods of ensuring that the local rulers are pliable and in imperialism's pocket. So in the oppressed nations, the immediate tasks are breaking the political and economic domination of imperialism.

This process is playing out now in Venezuela. The de facto expropriation of the oil industry from the corrupt management clique following its sabotage of the industry in December 2002-January 2003 was an anti-imperialist measure that gives the Venezuelan government control over the most decisive of its resources—30 per cent of GDP, 80 per cent of export earnings—and enables it to use this resource to tackle poverty in a serious way and start to break the country's dependency on oil by developing the economy in other areas.

The revolution is aiming at the transformation of the oil industry into an instrument that serves the Venezuelan people in order to start overcoming the legacy of imperialism. The oil wealth is being used both to help overcome poverty and to fund new state industries such as a new airline and a telecommunications company.

An indication of the changes can be gleaned from a July 24 New York Times article:

"Right now, PDVSA is not a mercantile entity," said Antonio Szabó, a former executive at PDVSA who left long before Mr. Chávez came to power and who is now chief executive of Stone Bond Technologies, a Houston software and energy consulting firm. "Right now, it's an instrument of the Venezuelan government."

Even at companies like Total that are moving toward a deal, executives describe tough negotiations that leave them wondering how committed PDVSA really is to expanding the role of private companies.

"We are proposing to invest in a $4 billion project immediately, and we agree to work in terms of the new law," said Jean-Marie Guillermou of Total's Venezuela operations. "Normally, a country would want to jump on this. They don't do it. Why?"

The company that has emerged from the ashes of the strike that ended in February 2003 is nothing like the button-down, corporate-style company that in the 1990s was often the No. 1 provider of foreign oil to the United States.

Gone is the by-the-book giant … So is the autonomy the company once wielded, replaced by a highly centralized management controlled by the Ministry of Energy and Mines …

Much of the earnings have been siphoned from exploration and production projects that some energy analysts say PDVSA needs to recover fully from the strike. Instead, the windfall is financing a social revolution …

The government recently announced that $2 billion in … revenue would bypass the central bank … and pay for public projects like a hydroelectric plant and a new state airline. Another $1.7 billion … is going to social programs.

It is clear Venezuela is not willing to allow itself to raped and pillaged along the old lines. This is also shown in the refusal of the Chávez government to sign a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund—the IMF being denounced by Chávez at a mass meeting of textile workers as "the road to hell". In contrast to the plans of the IMF and the US, which is trying to enforce the Free Trade Area of the Americas on the continent—Venezuela is campaigning for regional integration and unity against such imperialist plans. Venezuela is advocating a Latin American trading bloc to build a counterweight to us imperialism, and arguing for such projects as a regional integrated petroleum industry and tv station.

The government has started a campaign to achieve self-reliance in food—food sovereignty—so that Venezuela no longer needs to import 70 per cent of its food. Here the significance of land reform becomes clear. In Venezuela 5 per cent of the population control 75 per cent of arable land. The capitalists who control this land are clearly not producing enough food for the domestic market. A lot of productive land has clearly been left idle, which is why the government has made the expropriation of idle land the centre of the land reform. Under a law passed in December 2001, idle land over 5000 hectares can be taken over and redistributed, and the government is redistributing millions of hectares of stateowned land to those who are willing to work it.

The redistribution of land to cooperatives is a key part of the plan to stimulate production of food to win food sovereignty. This is a key aspect of breaking the hold of imperialism over Venezuela.

One important fact dictating much of the economic strategy of the revolution is that the peasantry, and rural population in general, is quite small. Venezuela has a very high rate of urbanisation, almost 90 per cent of the population. During the 1970s and 1980s, as neoliberalism hit hard and the countryside was increasingly neglected, there was an exodus from rural areas into urban areas to search for work, leading to the creation of the modern barrios, the slums that surround Venezuelan cities and house millions of the poor.

This mass of urban poor formed the original and strongest support base for Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution. They are not, for the most part, workers organised in industry, but largely a mass of semiproletarians, trying to eke out a living any way they can, working in what is known as the "informal" economy, such as the street vendors, as well as the unemployed. One estimate puts the number of "self-employed" workers at seven million, which is a huge proportion of a population of twenty-four million, and amounts to more than half of the broader working class.

This sector, living in ramshackle housing, without access to basic infrastructure and in many cases deprived of the basics of health care and education, has benefited most from the revolution, especially via the social missions.

The urban poor also benefit from land reform. Many of those living in the barrios are squatters—they have built their modest homes with whatever they could get their hands on, on whatever land they could find. The government is granting ownership of this land to those who live on it.

This is not a top-down process. Communities of no more than 200 families elect land committees of ten to fifteen people; these committees helped draw up the land reform legislation and are tasked with ongoing "self-transformation" and "self-government" of the barrios. Housing is one of the key parts of the revolutionary project. In the first two years of the Chávez government, more homes were built for the poor than in the previous twenty years. Housing projects, financed by the government, are being put under the control of the communities via the land committees and the formation of cooperatives.

A key part of the economic program has been the encouragement of cooperatives on a mass scale, financed by micro-credits, cheap loans from the state bank. More than 50,000 cooperatives have been formed, with plans to form thousands more. The cooperatives cover all sorts of areas. Cooperatives are an attempt by the government to organise this mass of "self-employed" semi-proletarians into broader collaborative economic units, to empower them economically. The government has set up a new ministry—the Ministry for the Popular Economy—to coordinate the development of cooperatives. Cooperatives are seen as a key part of developing the local economy against the traditional domination of multinationals.

The development of cooperatives is also tied to the plan to win food sovereignty. There are cooperatives growing organic food on the rooftops of buildings in the city. One important plan aims to encourage the urban poor to return to the countryside to form cooperatives in food production. That is, the rural land reform is not merely aimed at giving land to landless peasants, but also offers land titles in the countryside to the urban poor if they are willing to work previously idle land.

The development of cooperatives is not by itself a break with capitalism, although it helps undermine the domination of Venezuelan markets by big capital. It doesn't break with the rule of the market or the profit motive—even if the profits are shared collectively and the enterprise is controlled democratically. But it is very important in the Venezuelan context, taking previously atomised urban poor and giving them a collective project, organising themselves to win economic empowerment.

In the context of moving towards a post-capitalist society, cooperatives can play an important transitional role in an increasingly planned economy. One example of the potential of this in Venezuela is the role of the governmentrun "popular markets". These are supplied by cooperatives and sell subsidised goods significantly more cheaply than the capitalist supermarket chains—which, while not expropriated by the government, are being undermined. Gaining control over the distribution of basic goods by a workers government is an important step in breaking the control over the economy by capital, whether foreign or Venezuelan.

The success of the cooperatives will most likely depend on the context. If the revolution continues to move forward to develop the political power of the mass of poor Venezuelans and extend its measures to transform the economy from one that serves the interests of a minority to one that serves the needs of the people, then the cooperatives can play an important role. Outside this context, it will be difficult for them to do anything but replicate the problems that exist in the rest of the capitalist economy.

From anti-imperialism to anti-capitalism

Anti-imperialist measures, while not breaking with capitalism itself, if carried out seriously, have a tendency to challenge and undermine the local capitalist class in oppressed nations. The capitalist class in the oppressed nations tends to be too weak and dependent on imperialism, as well as afraid to arouse the masses they exploit, to carry through an anti-imperialist revolution. In order to carry out the revolution, an alliance of the working class and the various semi-proletarian and petty-bourgeois masses—the urban and rural poor—needs to take political power. This is a lesson being proven again in Venezuela.

The extent to which revolutionary measures have been able to move beyond words and into practice is the extent to which the poor have won political power.

By starting the struggle against imperialism, the Bolivarian revolution has unleashed the class struggle inside Venezuela. Since the election of Chávez in 1998, a process of differentiation according to class interests has been occurring. On one side are the oligarchs and latifundists, the Venezuelan capitalists and their various hangers-on inside the state bureaucracy, the Catholic Church, the union bureaucracy and the media—all scared of losing their privileges. On the other side are the peasantry, urban poor and industrial working class. In other words, all those with something to lose from the anti-imperialist revolution are on one side, and all those with something to gain on the other. The struggle for power between these camps has dominated Venezuela over the last few years—because, of course, power means the ability to implement measures in the interest of your class.

The struggle is not straightforward. It is complicated because the political process is dominated by various competing groupings and cliques that do not always automatically correspond directly to class interests. For instance, the working class and its allies do not yet have an adequate political organisation to lead them. The main pro-Chávez parties are weighed down by opportunism, position seeking, petty rivalries, nepotism and a certain amount of corruption. A range of new revolutionary organisations and parties have been set up in recent times but are still largely separate and sometimes divided by sectarian rivalry. This is not to say that significant advances have not been made.

The capitalist class also has its own, much greater, political problems. The old political parties that have traditionally represented capitalist interests are now so discredited and weak as to cease being adequate tools. While the political parties that make up the opposition squealed pathetically about supposed fraud after the failure of their attempt to recall Chávez, the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce (Federcamos) went over their heads to deal directly with the government, coming to an agreement on how to develop the economy. It is not that the capitalist class no longer wants to overthrow Chávez; it is just that right now it lacks anything approaching an adequate political tool to do so.

It is through waging the anti-imperialist battle that the working class and its allies develop both the organisational capacity and the consciousness required to directly challenge and overthrow capitalism. Actual engagement in struggle radicalises the working class, teaching workers who is on their side and who isn't, as well as what sort of organisation they require, gives them confidence and drives them to organise themselves for power. This process opens the way to the socialist stage of the revolution—although how fast they are able to take that road depends on a number of factors, both internal and international.

This is the general dynamic of the struggle to make a socialist revolution in the oppressed nations. The first, anti-imperialist, stage cannot be skipped over or wished away because it is based on the concrete development of mass struggle. Because imperialism is the most pressing enemy faced by the masses, it is natural that the masses are drawn into struggle against imperialism first and foremost. The vanguard inside the oppressed nations, the already radicalised layer who think politically and study history and ideology, may draw the conclusion by themselves that socialism is the solution. But the masses, caught up in day-to-day battle to survive and, in normal times, more or less apolitical, need to go through the experience of struggle to draw such conclusions. In Venezuela, with the ideological confusion caused by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the lack of a significant revolutionary party to impart basic lessons, not even the vanguard entered this revolutionary process with a vision of socialism as its goal. The vanguard, and the masses more broadly, are moving in a clearly anti-capitalist direction through struggle.

The critical question is not what particular measures are carried out at any one stage but the struggle for power.

The Russian and Cuban revolutions, for example, were forced by the pressure of the counter-revolution to carry out widespread expropriations sooner than might have been ideal, reducing the amount of time to ready the working class for the tasks of running a socialised economy and leading to various amounts of chaos. There is nothing virtuous about being forced to carry out widespread expropriations very quickly early in a revolution. It is much better to be in a position to take time, establish political power in order to force workers' control on the capitalist owners to assist in preparing the working class to run the economy and then go as fast as necessary without causing significant disruption to the economy—unless forced to go faster by the pressure of the counter-revolution. Here is what Chávez had to say on this matter in an interview in early 2004 with the opposition newspaper El Universal: "If the business owners once again close their companies, I have already prepared a decree to take them over. It would be even better because I would hand the companies to the workers. They better not do that or I will snatch their companies."

But it is necessary to focus on preparing the working class for such measures. In Venezuela, the struggle for workers' control, which is a key priority of the revolutionary new trade union federation, UNT, is crucial because it gives the Venezuelan working class the skills to and experience of running production. Also important is the focus of the education system, taking previously unskilled members of the urban poor and equipping them with the skills to run production and manage an economy. Think about the problems Cuba faced when it expropriated a lot of industry and faced an exodus of skilled technicians and professionals. They were forced to turn to the Soviet Union for assistance, which brought with it contradictions. In Russia after the revolution, lack of education and skills in the working class forced the Bolsheviks to rehire large numbers of tsarist administrators, which contributed to the eventual degeneration of the revolution.

The key difference in Venezuela, the reason they don't face that same predicament right now is because they have expropriated the oil industry and brought it under the control of a workers government, and right now oil prices are sky high and the US desperately needs a steady supply. This gives them breathing space. With the oil wealth, they are able to begin to redistribute wealth and make decisive steps to break economic dependence on imperialism without having to expropriate the bourgeoisie wholesale. Fidel Castro, addressing the Venezuelan parliament in 2000, pointed out that Venezuela is unique because its oil industry means it could eradicate poverty without destroying the capitalist system. This wealth gives them the chance to build the strength and preparedness of the working people to take control over the rest of the economy further down the track.

Since Chávez was elected in December 1998, the organisational capacity of the working class and its political consciousness have dramatically deepened. However, anyone who thinks the working class is ready to administer a centralised, planned economy should consider that still today only 14 per cent of the working class—excluding the semi-proletarian layers who are not in a position to be unionised—are even organised into unions.

One example of the breathing space afforded by oil is the fact that Venezuela still pays its foreign debt. The debt is not as large as in some other countries in the region, but it is still a drain on the national budget. However, the oil money means they can afford both to pay the foreign debt and seriously redistribute wealth. To refuse to pay the debt would inevitably provoke a confrontation with imperialism. Economic measures in retaliation would be likely, even possibly some sort of blockade. Now, when you import 70 per cent of your food, it makes sense, if you have the chance, to work at achieving food sovereignty before embarking on a confrontation that could see you struggling to import the food you need to survive.

Anti-capitalist trajectory

To make these points does not mean that the revolution does not have an anti-capitalist trajectory. The Venezuelan revolution is on an anti-capitalist trajectory to the extent that it is breaking the political power of the capitalist class and implementing, via the organisation of the poor and against the resistance of the capitalists, measures that benefit the poor majority at the expense of the capitalists.

Significant attacks on capitalist property rights are under way. The land reform allows the expropriation of capitalist property. Feudal relations don't exist in the Venezuelan countryside. The large landholdings are owned and operated on a capitalist basis. Although peasants are getting titles to the land, ultimately ownership resides with the state, since the peasants are not allowed to buy or sell the land. And the government is encouraging the formation of cooperatives in the countryside, a step in the direction of socialising agricultural production.

The nationalisation in practice of the oil industry was both a measure in the anti-imperialist stage of the revolution and an anti-capitalist move, given who expropriated it—the workers involved—and for what end—for a government that serves the interests of the poor and is redistributing wealth to the poor.

The oil industry is being used in a way that undermines the logic of the capitalist system. The money is not being reinvested to generate more profits for the local capitalist class; according to capitalist logic, it is being wasted. The government is pouring capital into programs of mass health care, housing for the poor, government-run markets that severely undercut the capitalist supermarket chains, free kitchens for the homeless, cheap credit for the poor and education.

It could be argued that the expansion of education would be useful for the local capitalists by giving them a more skilled work force to exploit. However, in Venezuela the revolution is not simply aiming to expand education but also to revolutionise it. It is clear that the Bolivarian University is attempting to create a new revolutionary education system, democratised and with the aim of creating new revolutionary values.

Is the leadership revolutionary?

The assessment we have made is that the trajectory of the process, consciously led by the central leadership, the public embodiment of whom is Hugo Chávez, is in the direction of encouraging and promoting the independent organisation of the poor to take power. This is what leads us to view this as a revolutionary process. This is opposed to how we might view a nationalist government that implements a few progressive measures, uses anti-imperialist rhetoric and is willing to implement a few mild anti-imperialist measures that enable the local bourgeoisie to better position themselves in relation to imperialist capital, but is not organising the working people for power in order to transform the country for their benefit. An example of that would be Nasser's Egypt.

This is the key difference we have on Venezuela with those groups in Australia from the Cliffite tradition—Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organisation. In a recent public forum on Venezuela in Sydney, the ISO, having received the line from an International Socialist Review article written by the British SWP, went in hard on the Venezuelan process and its leadership—and the DSP's support for it. They argued that Chávez was a nationalist along the lines of Peron in Argentina or Nasser in Egypt and his approach to the state resembles Allende's. They even went as far as to claim that he is basically the same as Carlos Perez, the Venezuelan president in the 1970s, who was then a populist, implementing some progressive measures, but who turned neoliberal in the 1980s and as president during the Caracazo of 1989 used the military to kill thousands of the poor. Chávez attempted to overthrow Perez in a coup in 1992. They argued that while Chávez is today a left populist, he could very easily turn and end up repressing the people like Perez. In essence it is a difference over the class nature of the process. They believe that Chávez is a representative of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, or at least one fraction of it, and is leaning on support from the working people as a counterweight to imperialism to create more space to develop Venezuelan capitalism. They don't believe the leadership of the process is attempting to challenge capitalist state power.

The key difference with these groups is not over whether the revolution should be implementing "permanent revolution" but over whether there even is a revolution. Even if the Venezuelan revolution took the socialist road today, or even took it five years ago, it would make no difference to their perspective. After all, these tendencies do not recongise the Cuban socialist revolution, so why should they recognise a fresh one today in Venezuela? They could easily claim, using the same flawed logic they use in regard to the Cuban Revolution, that it was "from above", not led by the workers themselves and amounted merely to "state capitalism". The fundamental difference is that they don't see the leadership of the process as genuinely revolutionary, attempting to lead the working class to power.

This perspective is at least partly driven by sectarianism. They build their groups on the basis that they are the one true revolutionary current. If you are the only revolutionaries in the world, and then a revolution happens that you don't lead, you have a problem. You either have to reassess your perspective that you are the only revolutionaries—which would require questioning your project of merely building yourself rather than attempting to regroup with other revolutionaries—or you pretend there is no revolution. The ISO and Socialist Alternative have to argue that there is no revolution in Venezuela; otherwise their whole approach to politics would be challenged. It would undermine their ability to recruit and undermine their approach to the Socialist Alliance, which offers the potential for revolutionary regroupment.

The struggle for state power

If we see this as a revolutionary process, we are compelled to ask the question—what is the class nature of the Venezuelan state? The state, Engels said, was at the end of the day a body of armed people that uses force to protect the interests of one class over another. But the state is also a lot more than that. It is made up of various institutions, including the armed forces, the government, the police, the courts and the state bureaucracy.

The report adopted at the last National Council meeting of Resistance and the article in issue number 26 of Links by Coral Wynter use the formulation that what exists in Venezuela is an embryonic workers and peasants state. There is no consolidated dictatorship of the proletariat; the capitalist class retains control over parts of the state apparatus; but the embryo of workers' power exists.

There is a workers and peasants' government—the government attempts to rule in the interests of the workers and peasants over the interests of the capitalists and attempts to organise the working people to defend their interests against the resistance of the capitalists.

We have also argued that, on the evidence available, the armed forces in Venezuela are no longer a tool in the hands of the capitalist class, but are being used to defend the interests of the workers and peasants. On the other hand, the police forces, especially the Caracas police force, have been regularly used against the poor. The courts have clearly been controlled by pro-capitalist forces—which is why, until recently, not a single coup plotter had been jailed—and much of the state bureaucracy apparently is dominated by oppositionists who use their positions to hold up and sabotage the process, and of course it is structured in a top-down bureaucratic way.

However, with the fresh electoral victories, the government is on the offensive to break the power of the counter-revolutionaries in these fields—with a plan to clean out the judiciary and the courts. Also, via the implementation of the missions, new administration structures created ad hoc by the Chavistas are being set up—alongside and counter to the old bureaucracy.

Even with the government and armed forces, their class nature is not decisively consolidated. They are still subject to a range of pressures and have significant contradictions. But we consider that the degree to which the government and armed forces are institutions for the workers and peasants is qualitative.

How has this come about? The working class cannot simply grab hold of the existing state institutions and wield them for its own purposes. The old institutions need to be broken and new ones created.

Chávez's 1998 election victory did not signify the creation of a workers and peasants government—or even a workers and peasants president. The question is not decided by the individual intentions of those in government.

The embryonic workers state has been created through the class struggle that Chávez's election unleashed. The need to defeat the opposition has been the impetus for the mass mobilisation of the working people, which has shifted the relationship of forces in favour of their class and opened the space for the government initiate proworker policies.

When Chávez won the presidency in 1998, he faced a situation in which every single other government and state institution was controlled by enemies. He was handed a neoliberal budget by the elitecontrolled congress as thousands of people lined up outside the presidential palace demanding jobs. At the same time, the popular organisations, while growing significantly, were still new and relatively weak, while the organised left was weaker still.

Chávez did two fundamental things to kick off the process and start the struggle. He turned to the institution he knew best, had formal control over as commander in chief and had a base of cadre inside—the armed forces. The military were sent into the poor areas to work alongside the poor in building homes and infrastructure.

Secondly, he used a series of referendums to change the political balance of forces. As well as fresh congressional (and presidential) elections that gave the Chavistas a clear majority, the most significant gain was the constitution. The constitution was drawn up by an elected constituent assembly following wide-ranging public consultations and was approved by more that 70 per cent of the population in a referendum. The constitution enshrines the principles of participatory democracy and social justice before profit. In many ways the struggle that has followed the adoption of the new "Bolivarian" constitution has been a struggle to make the constitution a reality.

The two key turning points that helped to create and consolidate a workers and peasants government were the April coup and the bosses' lockout in 2002 and their defeat by the mobilisation of working people (including those who wear military uniforms).

Here is one example of how the relationship of forces determines what a government can or can not do. The April coup was sparked by moves by Chávez to sack the management of the oil industry. Following the defeat of the coup, Chávez shocked many by putting the sacked management back in power. Many of his supporters could not understand why he would do that from what seemed a position of strength.

However, in the April coup, the oil workers themselves had remained passive, if not opposed to Chávez. The experience of the coup radicalised them, and they were further radicalised when the oil management sabotaged the industry. Then they organised with the armed forces to retake the industry and run it themselves. It was when the oil workers themselves had taken control that Chávez was in a position to go on national TV with a whistle and read the names of the central management one after the other, each time blowing the whistle and declaring "You're out!"

After this sabotage, the economy was in crisis. GDP had contracted 29 per cent. The government applied austerity measures—but on the capitalists, not the workers and peasants. It put a week-long freeze on access to foreign currency, followed by tight controls on foreign currency, with access denied to those who had shut out their workers, in order to prevent capital flight.

The government put prize freezes on basic goods and seized hoarded goods, reselling them at cheap government markets. Most decisively, bosses were not allowed to sack anyone. This is a significant limiting of the rights of the capitalist. The decree banning the layingoff of lower paid workers continues to this day.

This measure has enabled the expansion of new, independent class-struggle unions because bosses have been unable to weed out militants via sackings. This is partly why the new UNT was able so quickly to organise more workers than the old discredited CTV.

This creation of a new revolutionary unionism comes from the base. The way it has been built is via the constitutional measure that workers in an industry can hold workplace referendums to elect a new union leadership that will then have the right to bargain with the bosses on behalf of the workers. This has the potential to help keep in check the development of a union bureaucracy, because the new union leaders know they can be subject to the same referendum process if workers become dissatisfied.

At the same time as applying austerity to the capitalists, the government, having secured control of the oil, was able to begin using oil revenues to start redistributing wealth in earnest.

It is true that the capitalist armed forces were not physically broken up and replaced with new armed forces, with new uniforms and command structures. However, a transformation is under way among the individuals who make up the armed forces. The contradiction in any armed forces, heightened in Venezuela by a number of historical peculiarities, is that while the role of the armed forces is to protect the capitalist class, the individuals who make up the ranks are drawn from the workers and peasants. In Venezuela, this extends into the officer corps. This contradiction has been heightened by Chávez using the armed forces to work alongside the people in revolutionary projects.

In April 2002, in the US-backed coup, the armed forces split. The majority of the ranks and the young officers sided with the people, and 400 right-wing officers were purged afterwards. This was a key turning point, possible only because of decades of hard work by conscious revolutionaries building up a cadre force in the army. While on the surface the armed forces look the same, there have been significant changes in consciousness and role.

This became clear in the difference between the 2002 coup and the bosses' lockout. In the latter, opposition media and figures called for a new coup, but no officers responded. In fact, the armed forces became a weapon to defeat the lockout. There was a famous scene in which the National Guard stormed into a shut down Coca-Cola plant to open it up and seize the hoarded goods; the general opened a can of Coke, took a swig and spat it out in disgust.

However, the Caracas police force, under the control of an anti-Chávez mayor, was used to repress the Chavistas. The government used the armed forces to surround the police stations and disarm the police. The police were allowed to patrol only with a National Guard soldier alongside them.

There are accounts of the armed forces in the countryside defending peasants who have seized land, and in the cities workers who occupy factories. There are exceptions, but this appears to be their general role. After the defeat of the recall referendum, a "civic-military" parade was held, in which the armed forces marched with the popular sectors in a celebration of the revolution.

This is a key difference with the experience in Chile under Allende. As Chávez repeatedly points out, unlike in Chile, the Venezuelan process is not unarmed.

This is not a settled question. As the revolution deepens, some officers and soldiers may break with Chávez. There may be consciously counter-revolutionary elements remaining, heads down, in the army waiting for better conditions. In an article written in December, Miguel Rodrigues comments that although the obviously counter-revolutionary elements were purged from the military, there were a lot of officers who were largely passive in the coup and who may not prove reliable. The best revolutionary officers tend to be posted in Caracas and other cities, while many of the other layers have been posted to the countryside, especially near the dangerously explosive border with Colombia.

Also, Chávez has spoken of the need for the people themselves to be armed to defend the revolution, and has encouraged workers and peasants to arm themselves. He has spoken of the need to create a people armed along the lines of Cuba. He is pushing for the continued integration of the armed forces with the people. Moves in this direction will help consolidate and guarantee the class nature of the armed forces.

It has been reported that the military is planning to organise civilians to help police the Colombian border—a real danger spot for the revolution, given the hostility of the USbacked Colombian regime.

What are the prospects for the future? It is clear the revolution is entering a decisive phase in which it faces a battle to deepen and further institutionalise the revolution. This is a battle that faces many obstacles, which if they can't be overcome raise the question of the revolution's survival.

The first thing to register is the decisive victories won against the counter-revolutionary opposition in the recall referendum on August 15 and the regional elections of October 31. The defeat of the attempt to recall Chávez by popular referendum was the third major defeat for the counter-revolution in two and a half years. This defeat paved the way for the crushing victory of the Chavistas in the regional elections, with the Chavistas now holding twenty-one of twenty-three states, up from fifteen, and 270 of 330 municipalities, up from 130.

This gives the forces of the revolution much greater institutional weight and does away with state and local administrations that were not carrying out the social missions or implementing progressive legislation such as the land reform law. It is an opportunity to deepen the process.

The counter-revolution is divided, unpopular and hopelessly weak. Its masters in the US are bogged down in Iraq and dependent on Venezuelan oil. The focus has shifted to inside the revolution, to the struggle to overcome internal weaknesses and contradictions—things such as corruption of officials, bureaucracy, opportunists posing as revolutionaries, inefficiency and top-down "commandist" organising.

While the counter-revolution seemed a serious threat, these problems tended to take a back seat to the immediate task of mobilising to defend the process. Now, they come to the fore. This is why Chávez has launched what he calls the "revolution within the revolution". A number of commentators have pointed out that the seeds for counter-revolution also exist within the revolution—and it this battle against the seeds of counter-revolution that is taking on decisive importance.

Recognising this, the central leadership is clearly on an offensive to deepen the revolution, to deepen popular power, to deepen the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist measures and increase their control over more and more of the state. Plans are under way aimed at gaining control over the police force and the courts, and the beginnings of some regulation over the previously outlaw corporate media have been introduced (against the backdrop of the impressive spread of community media in recent times).

Chávez is clearly going on an ideological offensive. In his speeches, both before and after the recall vote, he emphasised time and again that they "have only just begun", that what has been achieved is a small part of what the revolution aims at. He has especially been emphasising the need to break with the system of capitalism.

An indication of the attempt to drive the ideology of the revolution forward came at the World Forum of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity, hosted by Venezuela in December [see article in this issue]. According to a number of reports, conference participants were taken aback by the radicalism of his speeches. Whereas they were accustomed to Chávez denouncing imperialism and quoting from nineteenth century independence leaders, he gave a scathing denunciation of the global capitalist system and insisted that socialism was the only alternative for the world. This conference was where Chávez joined Celia Hart from the Cuban Communist Party in a call for socialists to return to the ideas of Leon Trotsky [see "'Socialism in one country' and the Cuban Revolution"in Links 26]. Chávez said that Trotsky's position on the need for the revolution to be international was important, as opposed to the Stalinist position of "socialism in one country".

Interestingly, the head of ideology for the Command Maisanto, the organisation established to coordinate the defeat of the recall in August, was William Izarro—a veteran revolutionary described by Richard Gott, author of In the Shadow of the Liberator, as a Marxist from a Trotskyist background. Izarra has also been charged by Chávez with organising an international Marxist conference in Venezuela in early 2005, as part of the attempt to generalise Marxism and discussion over its role in the Bolivarian revolution.

The ideological deepening is going hand in hand with a campaign for deepening the revolution in practice. Straight after the regional elections, Chávez held a meeting of all the Bolivarian mayors and governors to work out a concrete plan to take things forward. At the meeting it was decided that all candidates for election would have to be selected by popular vote from the base. This has been a controversial issue, and was demanded by the popular organisation as a means of controlling those elected to help weed out the opportunists and to bring elected candidates more in line with the revolutionary mood of the masses. Opportunism and corrupt or untrustworthy officials who present themselves as Chavistas are a significant problem inside the revolution.

Land reform is another area where an offensive has been signaled, first by Chávez in the leadup to the elections when he insisted that all elected officials must work to implement to the full the land reform law of 2001. There was a meeting in December of governors from a number of states to discuss how to make this real, with a few states passing decrees that accelerate land reform. Already thousands of hectares have been redistributed to peasant families. The government is assigning no less than 2000 government officials to sweep the countryside to investigate how much idle land owners have and whether or not they really own the land they say they do.

Chávez has also launched an offensive against corruption, and there is a campaign aimed at a "cultural revolution" of sorts—that is the struggle to implement not just material changes but also moral ones, the struggle to create the "new people", revolutionary people. In this struggle the revolution is relying a lot on the ideas and example of Che Guevara, who epitomised the attempt to do this in Cuba. They recognise that for the revolution to survive and go forward, a new consciousness is needed.

Marta Harnecker in her article "After the referendum, Venezuela faces new challenges", pointed out that the revolution must "foster a qualitative leap in the participation of the people; the idea that Chávez repeats 'poverty can not be eliminated unless we give power to the people' must be made more concrete. Only in this way can the opportunism and the bad habits from baggage from the old order be overcome."

The problems faced are serious. A criticism of a lot of the participatory democracy initiatives spelled out in the constitution, such as participatory budgets, is that they remain at the moment mostly a good idea on paper. Katherine Lahey points out that while her experiences in Caracas revealed people's power functioning in practice, when she travelled outside Caracas, her experiences were less positive and she saw areas where people's power largely existed on paper, with few practical changes to traditional government practices. She spoke of the problem of opportunists, inefficiency and genuine revolutionists unorganised. She points out that if these problems are not resolved, they can create the space for the opposition to make a comeback by demagogy. No politician in Venezuela today is publicly against the social missions; they are too popular. The main argument developing in the opposition is that the missions are being mismanaged and they would run them better. Problems inside the revolution can create the opening for the opposition to revive.

Rodrigues' article on the World Forum of Intellectuals argued that Chávez's intervention into the forum signaled an offensive to deepen the revolution, but he also raised what he called the "great unknown"—whether the organisational capacity of the revolution is up to the test. He argued that not since the role of Fidel Castro in the early days of the Cuban Revolution has a revolutionary leader played such a profound or central role in a revolutionary process as Chávez in Venezuela today—but an important difference is that Chávez does not have a revolutionary organisation behind him, as Castro did. He argues that solving this problem is critical to being able to make reality what Chávez has signalled.

This is not to say there is no revolutionary organisation in Venezuela; there clearly is. They could not have gone as far as they have without revolutionary organisation. But it has been noted by a number of commentators as a key problem. There is no one organisation that has been able to unite the new vanguard that the struggle has thrown up and win that vanguard to a common program for the revolution—not sucked out of anyone's thumb, but based on reality—that can carry out common action and win the authority with the broader masses to provide the direction to take the process forward.

Such a cadre organisation would be able to challenge politically the problems of corruption and bureaucracy and win support for solutions. As indicated above, many of the parties backing Chávez, including Chávez's party the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR), are tainted with the top-down structures, maneuvering and opportunism of the parties of the old order. A number of new groupings have emerged aiming to overcome this, which is inevitable, but the challenge is to organise the struggle under a common banner.

One of the most positive gains in this direction have come from the Units of Electoral Battle—the UBEs that worked on the grassroots level—ten to fifteen people—to organise the masses to defeat the recall referendum.

These units were organised under the umbrella of the Command Maisanto. This was established after an earlier command had failed either to prevent the recall from going ahead or fulfil expectations of how many opposition parliamentarians would have recalls organised against them. The first command was left mostly in the hands of the main pro-Chávez parties and was widely criticised for its bureaucracy and top-down approach. It was so discredited, Chávez was forced to abolish it completely and set up Command Maisanto, which put a much greater focus on grassroots organising.

The UBEs went from house to house and street to street to mobilise people. According to Harnecker, these have been the most successful of all the popular organisations so far thrown up by the revolution and have been relaunched as Units of Endogenous Battle. These units have the potential to unite the best, most conscious and committed of the revolutionary activists, those actually leading in action, into a common organisation to take the struggle forward.


Onc absolutely central aspect of the revolutionary process that should not be neglected is the role of the Cuban Revolution and the solidarity growing between the two processes. The Cubans have been playing a very important role for some time, not merely in providing important practical resources like doctors and teachers for the missions, but also in bringing the experience of over 40 years of revolution to bear. There is no doubt that the Cubans themselves see this process as absolutely crucial and are providing all the practical solidarity they can.

In return, this process is also very important in breaking the isolation of Cuba and giving it access to valuable resources. The political and economic support Venezuela is currently giving Cuba is invaluable at a time when the Bush administration is escalating its attempts to strangle and destroy the Cuban Revolution. A new, wide-ranging economic agreement signed in December deepens the close relationship and solidarity between the two revolutions.

There are no guarantees when it comes to revolutions. But right now Venezuela is a living embodiment of Lenin's comment that revolutions are "festivals of the oppressed"; the people are awake and taking destiny into their own hands. The words of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto about revolution are being made a reality in Venezuela—all that is solid is melting into air. In this climate, everything about the old order is being challenged. We can not say for sure what the shape of Venezuela will be when it resolidifies, but we support the struggle for transformation.

In his interview with Tariq Ali in the leadup to the August recall vote, Chávez made an important comment. Ali reports that Chávez told him:

Are we aiming in Venezuela today for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don't think so. But if I'm told that because of that reality you can't do anything to help the poor, the people who have made this country rich through their labour, and never forget that some of it was slave labour, then I say "We part company". I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. [Italics added.]

He added:

I believe it's better to die in battle, rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing … That position often strikes me as very convenient, a good excuse … Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it's only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.

This is the essence of Marx's famous comment that one step forward in the real movement is worth a dozen programs. The sectarian left may not understand this, but to paraphrase Marx, the sectarians have proclaimed their programs to the world; the point, however, is to change it. That is just what they are doing in Venezuela, and that is why we support it and see a need to give priority to building solidarity with it.

It is increasingly obvious that the Bush administration is targeting the Venezuelan revolution and the example it is offering to the oppressed across that continent. Especially incensing US imperialism are the increasingly close political and economic links with Cuba. We can be sure that attacks on Venezuela are in the pipeline. This means that all revolutionaries around the world have a duty to start working now to build solidarity with Venezuela—a crucial part of which is spreading the news of the important changes and gains for ordinary people. This means challenging the combination of anti-Chávez propaganda in the media and, especially outside the Americas, sheer ignorance.

But as well as the practical tasks of solidarity, it is also true that there is no substitute for a real revolution when it comes to winning people to revolutionary politics. There is no other vehicle as effective, which is why the DSP is putting such an emphasis on Venezuelan solidarity work. We want to use the exciting example of the first revolution of the twenty-first century—with all of its excitement, lessons, flaws and potential for victory—in order to win more people to the struggle to make a revolution in this country.

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