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`Socialisms' in the 21st Century

Haiman El Troudi has occupied many positions in Venezuela’s revolutionary government. He was the director of the Office of President (2005–2006) under Hugo Chavez and secretary of the Maisanta National Command during the presidential recall referendum in August 2004. He is currently part of a team of investigators in the Caracas-based Miranda International Center, where he heads the program, ``Socialism in the 21st Century’’. Troudi spoke with Sam King for Links magazine on June 14.

What do you consider to be the positive lessons of 20th Century socialism that are relevant for building socialism of the 21st Century?

That depends on the context in which the development of each revolution occurred. We cannot talk about one unique “socialism”, but need to talk of “socialisms” because there is an independence, depending on where a revolutionary process occurs, which develops inside distinct socialist forms. For example, what is occurring now in Venezuela is not the same as is occurring in Bolivia, or in Ecuador, or Nicaragua, because they occur in different objective realities and because the social subjects are distinct. The principal revolutionary actor in the Bolivian revolution are the indigenous peoples. In the case of Venezuela, it is the organised communities. In neither, is there a vanguard of workers that has assumed the role of leader of these revolutions. For these reasons we need to talk of ``socialisms’’.

In regards to the last century, without doubt, the first aspect that we need to reclaim is the idea that all the socialisms in Eastern Europe were linked to the human condition. They were about empowering men and women above capital and above work. They were about stimulating a process of liberation, of raising the cultural level and also of satisfying basic needs. You could say they opened the way for the construction of a new man and a new woman who, in good measure, could resolve their living conditions materially as well as culturally.

We also need to reclaim, for example, the experience of Yugoslavia and ... the forms of self-management and co-management that developed inside the [public] factories. In reality, this was one of the best processes of workers’ control to occur in the socialist camp in the last century because there was not only an elevation of productivity during those years, but also of ecological consciousness and organisation, and participation of the workers in the management of the companies. There was also a linkage between these experiences of the workers with [general] social organisation. That is to say, work for liberation was not left inside the factory or inside the company but was also taken to where the workers lived and were politically and socially active.

We need to reclaim the advances made by Cuba in the social sphere, where above all there is the guarantee of a dignified life for Cuba’s inhabitants regardless of the United States’ blockade, [which imposes powerful] limitations on the revolution’s ability to advance economically further than it has. [Despite this] there have been great advances in the education, consciousness and culture of the Cuban people. The majority of Cubans have completed high-school education. This is a very important advance for the Cuban Revolution. In health and in culture and sport, there have been very important social gains.

[Cubans are] a people who have woken up, a conscious people, a people who are politicised and who have formed a flank in defence of the Cuban Revolution. This is the result of the impact of education and culture in the transformation of the people. [Cubans are] a people who were besieged, who are blockaded, are shut out of world economic activity. Cuban people faced an economic calamity during the special period [following the collapse of the Soviet Union], and triumphed. For the revolutionary government to remain firm in these conditions, it has to be fundamentally based on the consciousness of the people, a consciousness that is stimulated by the leadership of the Cuban Revolution.

Fundamentally, the cause of socialism in the last century has permitted us to understand all the atrocities that are presented by the capitalist model. If they had not existed--all the experiences of socialism in the last century--with their errors and truths, we would not be able to understand the magnitude of injustice that has developed in the capitalist system.

What are the negative lessons?

There has been a lot of discussion about the negative experiences. We need to understand the mistakes. Being very attached to the Marxist method of analysing history and the dialectics of those processes, we need to understand that in a way we are privileged to be able to begin developing the first socialist revolution initiated since the collapse of the socialist camp of last century. Others, like Cuba, China, Vietnam and North Korea, are socialist revolutions that occurred in the 20th century, that are maintained in the 21st Century, however the first revolution to declare its socialist character in the 21st Century is the Bolivarian Revolution. So we are privileged because we can look to the past and see what mistakes were made, what should be abandoned, what were the failures.

For example, we understand that we cannot repeat the model of state capitalism in which the state controls the totality of the means of production, creating public companies of the state for the administration of the means of production. The form in which these companies function reproduced the identical logic and dynamic of capitalism--the exploitation of human by human, the alienation of labour and the technical division of labour. So why then have a state company if it possesses the same internal characteristics of a capitalist enterprise? Fundamentally, this was occurring in those processes and it is also occurring in a part of our process. So we need to understand that labour needs to be a process of emancipation and not of oppression.

Another lesson, something that we don’t want to repeat, is the negation of the possibility of the democratic development of the people. Society was organised in the party, the party was subservient to the political bureau and the leader would control the political bureau. The party controlled the state, while the leader of the party controlled the party and the state. This was clearly the case with Stalinism in the Soviet Union. So the people in those socialist countries simply delegated all the decisions to their representatives, to their political leaders, and also to the state, and they were converted into a passive spectator. It is necessary for us the reclaim a profound process of democratic development as something internal to the socialist project for the organisation of society. Not just any democratic formula, because representative democracy reproduces a vertical system of state affairs and in most cases denies the population the opportunity to participate in public affairs of the state. We believe in a system of open participatory democracy, in which the people take part in public questions and also make the decisions in areas of competence and their own affairs.

We don’t believe that the Bolivarian socialist revolution needs to proclaim itself atheist because this would deny all the support that, for example, liberation theology has given to socialist causes in Latin America. It is better if the state adopts a secular position and leaves the decision about what religious beliefs they wish to have to the people.

We don’t wish to repeat the scenario of totalitarianism with its excessive democratic centralism, because the people, if they are going to participate more actively, need to be allowed to intervene in all public affairs and all the affairs of the country in which they live. That the state can plan everything that occurs in the society is unimaginable because many issues are simply outside the control of the state--because of their complexity, especially in a world so globalised as it is now. It is important to be flexible in regards the conduct of the state, which cannot assume total control but must delegate to the organised people the power to control some of the process. For example, certain companies that can be administered as the collective and social property of all, but which is not administered by the state, rather, it is administered directly by an organised community. This community is not the owner of the entity but carries out the administration without the intervention of the state.

The state, together with the organised people, are the determinants of what are the real necessities of the population that need to be satisfied. This means [the state] being flexible in its role as controller and having more confidence in the people, and in this case not only trusting the party or technicians.

We cannot repeat the [previous] format of central planning. On the one hand capitalism says that the invisible hand of the market self-regulates the market. The counter-position of socialism states that the economy needs to be planned nationally. However, we don’t believe in any particular formula, such as that the economy necessarily needs to be planned in a vertical manner, where everything is determined by a group of technicians or scientists from the state [who] decide what will happen in the economy, in production or in the development of a particular locality etc. That is to say, we believe in planning but not in planning that is necessarily and absolutely centralised and vertical. It is better to create a system of socialist planning that gives the possibility to the people to diagnose their own reality at the same time as making the plans for their own locality. In reality, these plans will then be more closely linked to the real world.

I want to emphasise this phrase: “The people are better planners than the best planner of the government or academia”. The people know their reality. There is no need to simply diagnose or study the world in which they live. An intellectual, an academic, a planner, a theorist needs to go and observe reality in order to understand. The people know their own reality and can better plan there own reality. We need to invert the pyramid of planning which has in the past put the experts and planners at the top and the people at the bottom. The relationship was between subjects and objects. There needs to be a relationship of subjects and subjects.

Now, the people are at the top of the planning pyramid. At the bottom are the technicians, who are purely facilitators in technical matters. The pyramid is inverted with the people at the top, the government in the middle and the intellectuals, technicians and theorists at the point on the bottom. These technicians, through the government, need to assist the organised people in carrying out their decisions. The idea is that small-scale plans at the community level will combine, one with another, to form plans covering a greater territory and these will in turn unite to form the basis of the national plan. In this way, planning runs from the base to the top, not top to bottom. So we do not want to repeat the focus on totalitarian planning.

The final error that I want to address is that of the arms race carried out during the period of the socialist governments in the last century. Clearly, there was the Cold War and the [socialist camp’s] response was to attempt to prevent North American imperialism from controlling the entire world and imposing capitalism and neoliberalism by creating a counterweight. Now there is no justification for a [new] Cold War because what is intended [by the Bolivarian revolution] is to create a multi-polar strategy, in which many nations, governments and regions can act as important counterweights. They should be linked together in a mutually complimentary way to guarantee that [they are] counterweights to imperialism. In the long run, we will break imperialism.

I am speaking of a non-arms race strategy in the sense that Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution is not attempting to stockpile weapons in order to carry on the fight against imperialism. No. Simply, we will defend our sovereignty, we think that Iran can defend its sovereignty, Cuba defend its sovereignty, the peoples of Africa can defend their sovereignty, that Russia can defend its sovereignty, China defends its sovereignty, and the same for India, Malaysia etc. Various poles of the people in places that are developed would be far more powerful than imperialism. In this way it will be impossible for imperialism to control these peoples.

How do you view the role of the private sector in the in Venezuela in the long term, for example, in the next 20 to 50 years?

The most complex aspect for any socialist revolution is advancing in its [period of] transition. We in the Bolivarian revolution do not believe that it is important for us, now, to define what will be the regime of property. This is part of a global debate that has been going on for a long period and is yet to be resolved--completely private property, completely public property or a mixed economy--these are the debates [faced by] every [revolutionary] experience and its specific development depends on its reality. The Chinese have gone down the path of a mixed economy; there are other models in which there is still public property, completely state owned. We believe that the road to socialism is the road of social ownership of all the means of production, but this cannot be constructed from one moment to the next--we need to move in that direction. For us collective ownership of the means of production is the ideal. It’s the goal that we hope to achieve, but not simply through state administration of property.

We think that the state must administer the larger part of strategic property. Also the people organised collectively have the possibility of administering public property, not to be owners, but to administer. The people, not the private sector, will be delegated a part of this concession to develop, administer, exploit the goods. The members of this cooperative or socialist enterprise won’t keep what is produced, or the profits obtained, but will reinvest it in the enterprise. I repeat they are not the owners.

To get to that point there is a long road in front of us that we need to travel. On this long road, the Bolivarian revolution must adopt the form of a mixed economy because, remember that this revolution that we are making, we wish to carry out in a peaceful form and if we wish to make a peaceful revolution, because we cannot impose anything, we need to seek a general consensus. We need to look for an active consensus of all the inhabitants of the country and this consensus includes recognising existing class differences. If we decided to nationalise all the means of production, the revolution would then enter into a phase of class contradiction, and inevitably of confrontation and clashes between classes. This would make it extremely difficult to develop the revolution peacefully. For this reason, we need to embark on a long period of transition which permits us to win and consolidate this new ground. It is not only a question of taking over property for property’s sake, to simply say “this is state property and all our problems are resolved”. No!

The issue must be that economic activity is productive, and is so for everyone. Above all, it must be for the collective benefit because we don’t want to bankrupt companies. Because we want the wealth produced by the company to be reinvested into the population. This is not easy because, among other issues, we have a cultural inheritance, a tradition in the state, which we have inherited from the Fourth Republic which is inefficient, corrupt and bureaucratic. There is a lot state property in Venezuela. The Venezuelan state controls almost 70% of the national economic activity. This is enormous, but we have many failures because in our companies, our public institutions, in the government, in the ministries etc, there is a lot of bureaucratism, inefficiency and corruption. Moreover, they exploit the workers, appropriate the products of their labour and there is a social and technical division of labour. So why, for the moment, should the state control the other 30% of economic activity that remains in private hands?

Also some of this private property is collective property, such as the many collectives that exist–they have mixed or intermediate [property] forms. Why should the state control the other 30% if we don’t have a guarantee that we can administer it efficiently and control it? So that we have to subsidise it? Or to bankrupt it? No. We want to allow the private sector to pursue the development of its activity and gain the confidence of the revolution whilst we progressively look for ways that this sector can produce above all for collective and not private gain. I will repeat the goal. After a generation--50 years perhaps-- we can arrive at a state of full social property and in the ways that I have explained, the state together with the organised sectors of society will have control, not only the state.

Can you talk about the community councils and factory councils as organs of popular power?

You are asking about the protagonistic participation of the people. This is expressed through distinct forms of social organisation from the base. One of them is the community councils, but there are also other forms for example, the local public planning councils. We also have the health committees, technical water committees and the education committees. The morals and enlightenment committees contain brigadistas whose activity is to raise political consciousness. There are also many cooperatives and the enterprises of social production (EPSs), forms of participation in economic production.

It’s true that one of the principal issues that the Bolivarian Revolution can display as a profound achievement, that gives the revolution a socialist character, is the construction of popular power. That is to say, devolving power once again to the people so that the people can regulate and control the state. We have talked substantially about the construction of the new state in which organised people will in time assume control of this state through many forms of organisation. But it is not easy to give power to the people because it is not possible to learn overnight how to administer power. It is a constant, permanent process of popular education.

So now we are in a beautiful phase of education, not theoretical education but education based on practice. This has produced an enormous number of experiences of popular participation. Popular participation that is expressed in the dynamic where various social subjects are developing in order to help propel the construction of the revolution. The Bolivarian Revolution consists of a plurality of social subjects. Even better, it is a collective social subject.

Normally in the socialist revolution the social subject is the working class. In the Bolivarian Revolution this is not the case. The workers, the Venezuelan proletariat, is one of those [subjects] intervening in the revolution. Other important sectors are the indigenous communities, the communities of African decent, women, youth and also the organised people through the community councils. Together they form the collective subject of the Bolivarian Revolution.

This new collective subject, in its distinct areas of activity, in the political, social, economic spheres, workers in the factory, in their community, students in the university, women in their homes, activists in the streets, the indigenous communities in their territories etc. Each of these subjects, in their respective areas of action, receives a part of the power to be administered directly. The form in which the power is being devolved is through a model called councils. Community councils, factory councils, student councils, indigenous councils etc. Everyone in a given barrio, all the workers in a factory etc. are organised into the assembly and elect delegates, who bring the opinion of the collective to the upper echelons [of the state]. [The elected delegates] are also accountable [to the councils]. The councils can recall their leadership. They can revoke a decision that is not to the liking of the majority. This is one instrument of direct democracy inside the councils. So it is very interesting that the social subject in its various spheres is receiving power. This power is administered through the councils, which function in the form of direct democracy. What we want is for the various councils to form a network that will become a confederation of councils and assume control nationally.

This will mean that planning and power originates from the base. The most important aspect of popular power is that the councils can organise and plan their own destiny from the base and can take the decisions over issues that relate to their lives. Moreover, now they can carry out tasks and also assume social control. This is the significance of popular power. It means consciousness and organisation. The tasks of popular power once consciousness is achieved is to organise the people, then to mobilise the people, then to diagnose the situation, then to make a plan to change that reality, then take the decision [on what action to take], then to manage the actions and to implement social control.

Can you talk about the relation between the new forms of popular organisation and the old state apparatus?

The point is to build a new state. We want to abandon that which does not work and substitute it with something that does. We need to think about what caused the old state to be dysfunctional. Among other reasons, the state did not function because it was not accountable to society. It was a state controlled by a group of functionaries, bureaucrats. Moreover it was a state that was created by political clientelism. The political parties of the Fourth Republic, in order to pacify their militants, offered them positions in the government and in the ministries. So these functionaries’ appointment was the product of a favour from a party. Progressively, the state was converted into a white elephant, very overgrown and inoperable. Above all it was not accountable to nor connected with the people. We cannot repeat the same problems and errors. The solution is very simple: the new state needs to be constructed by the people, with the people and for the people. It can not be constructed from above, but needs to be constructed from below.

I’ll give an example. The ministry of health was unable to resolve the medical problems of the population. It had to be bypassed by the creation of the Mision Barrio Adentro [Mission Inside the Neighbourhoods]. This mission was possible thanks to the people organised into health committees. The mission is directly in one’s own community. It is unnecessary to go to a hospital, nor the capital or a town, it is right there [in the local areas]. In every community, there is a health facility that the people have helped to construct, and ensure it will not fail. That is to say, it is a construction of the people. They have constructed an institution of the new state that effectively functions. It is not a product of political clientelism or bureaucratism. The people were not paid for this nor did they receive it as a gift from a party. The people acted voluntarily because only the organised people themselves have the capacity to resolve their own problems.

The same happened with other missions like Mercal [through which subsidised food is distributed] and Robinson [aimed initially at tackling illiteracy and now providing primary education to those who did not finish school]. Who takes the classes in Mission Robinson? Who lends their house, their living room, their bedroom to the neighbours who cannot read or write? The community, that is the people themselves who are organised for this response. Education is a problem that is the responsibility of the state, however never in the 40 years of representative democracy of the Fourth Republic was full literacy achieved. The Bolivarian Revolution was able to achieve this in one and half years. Why? Because we created a mission with the people and it was the people who achieved that success. So the idea is to bypass the state institutions that don’t function. Now what we need to do is to ensure that these missions that we have created with the people are joined together, one with another in order to take control of the old ministries, until the old has been replaced by the new. That is the strategy: we have to finish with the old state and construct the new.

How is the Bolivarian Revolution linked to the Latin American revolution?

Any socialist revolution, if it is to triumph, needs to see many socialist revolutions. There cannot be socialism in one country. For this we believe in an internationalist perspective and in the necessity of stimulating all revolutionary processes in Latin America and the world. The revolution needs to be international. In this direction we are pushing to link our revolution with the many emancipatory processes underway in other countries--processes from below, not only from above, but fundamentally from below. There are initiatives with the social movements and grassroots political groups from other peoples. Not only political linkages but also support. The Bolivarian Revolution fortunately has been given many resources which we have put at the service of the liberation of other peoples, for example through ALBA [the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas].

We are attempting to demonstrate that there is a different form of economic cooperation to that of the globalised free market, one that is based not on competition on –[collaboration] and reciprocity. With ALBA, we are trying to discover a new form of helping other processes of emancipation.

Also there are internationalist causes that we have pursued through the social missions, in alliance [with the] Cuban revolution. For example, we initiated the literacy campaign in Bolivia with Venezuelan and Cuban brigadistas. For a long time we have been developing the international Mision Milagro [Mission Miracle] to treat blindness across the globe. We have put the energy resources that we possess at the service of the people of the world.

We provided subsidised fuel to the inhabitants of New Orleans after the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, and to the poor of Chicago and New York during their winter. Subsidies that their own government was not providing, a government that has far more resources than Venezuela. We are convinced that we must extend the hand of solidarity and fraternity to all the people in the world. Clearly, what we can do is only very small but it’s also so that people can see the dimension of wickedness and inequity of capitalism and see the counterposition based on the love and solidarity presented by socialism.

Are ALBA and the policies of economic integration pursued by the Venezuelan government revolutionary acts?

Yes without a shadow of doubt. This is an issue of great pride. Through this mechanism we are discovering alternative forms, very new forms, of integration of the peoples. It is very difficult to plan for integration overnight. It is very difficult for Latin America to undertake an integration project like that in Europe because that was a process of economic integration. The political was seen as a secondary plan. We want to produce a process of integration that equitably serves all the sectors: cultural integration, social integration, energy integration, economic integration, political integration, and if possible, territorial integration. ALBA is an initial approximation of this process that we wish to collectively discover between all the peoples and revolutionary governments of the American continent.

For example we are looking to see if it's possible to begin a process of economic exchange through barter, even though barter cannot be developed in all spheres of the national or world economy because it is difficult to exactly establish how to carry out this exchange in the market. We hope that in ALBA we will be successful in producing an exchange of activities. This is a system, a new form of barter based on agreements by the participating governments which were arrived at in a sovereign manner with neither intervention by the market nor multilateral organisations like, for example, the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

With Uruguay we exchange oil for cattle. With Bolivia we exchange oil for soya. With Argentina we exchange oil for medical technology. Now, the value for which we exchange our oil for Uruguay’s cattle is decided without listening to dictates of the WTO. It’s a very interesting form of complimenting economies.

[Many of El Troudi's books and other writing can be viewed in Spanish at <<>>. Interview conducted in Spanish and translated by Sam King and Romain Migus.]

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