In defence of Hugo Chavez’ call for a Fifth Socialist International

By Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

January 15, 2010 -- Critics who have planted themselves firmly on the sidelines have been lobbing all kinds of disapproving missives at Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez’ call for a new international, urging others who have been carried away by enthusiastic support to join them on the sidelines. The laundry list of complaints is extensive: Chavez is the head of a bourgeois government; Chavez only pursues reformism, not genuine revolution; he made his call in the presence of an audience that included avowed supporters of capitalism; and so on.

We do not dispute that these criticisms contain a grain of truth. For example, the Chavez government is currently tied to a capitalist state. In other words, the economy of Venezuela is still predominantly capitalist and, to a significant degree, defends current property relations. Also, there are many functionaries in the government more than eager to accept bribes, and capitalists do not hesitate to take advantage of their wealth to press their needs on compliant bureaucrats. Moreover, Chavez’s vision of socialism, which has not been spelled out in detail, might indeed contain flaws. One critique claimed that Chavez called for the building of socialism in collaboration with businesspeople, which was interpreted to mean that capitalists would not be expropriated. However, if Chavez had small business owners in mind, this interpretation would not be warranted.

Missing the point

Nevertheless, even if all these criticisms are true, they miss the point because they leave out the vital role of the masses in defining the direction in which Venezuela’s revolution is unfolding, and how their participation can influence the direction of the Fifth Socialist International.

Chavez has indisputably made inroads into capitalist property relations. His government took control of the oil industry, using much of the profits to provide social services to the poor, including food distribution. The government encouraged the organisation of community groups that could then appeal to the government for grants to pursue their collective needs. Businesses, banks and telecommunication companies have been nationalised. Chavez helped inaugurate the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that has attracted between five and seven million members, including roughly two million that have actively participated.

Steps such as these have in fact awakened a yearning among workers and the poor for a better life and have led to a strong show of support among the masses for Chavez, who has enjoyed unusual popularity. When the former oligarchy tried to overthrow Chavez in 2002, the coup was stopped by the intervention of almost a million people who surrounded the presidential palace. They were determined not to let their president be removed from office.

Role of the masses

But the relation between Chavez and the masses is dialectical. At times, he has drawn them into the political arena in order to raise their consciousness. But at times they have taken the initiative, pushing Chavez to implement policies that he was not yet prepared to introduce.

So for those who say that the Venezuelan state is capitalist, one cannot dispute the technical truth of this characterisation. And for those who say that Chavez’ vision of socialism is fatally flawed, perhaps there is some truth here as well. However, the failure of these critics is their static, unhistorical framework, their disregard for the masses, and their consequent inability to recognise that Venezuela is in a period of transition.

The masses have become politicised and are now players on the field of history. Their hopes and aspirations have been raised. And they have the potential to play a decisive role in the unfolding of events. While the state is not a dictatorship of the proletariat, since the workers and the poor of Venezuela do not directly control and operate it in the interests of the majority, nevertheless the iron grip of the capitalists on the government has been pried loose. The oligarchy no longer directs and dominates it. Instead, the government stands somewhere between one controlled by workers and the poor on the one hand, and one controlled by the oligarchy and the capitalist class on the other. And there are no guarantees how these ambiguous dynamics will play out.

Off the sidelines

So rather than throwing themselves into the process in order to help build a favourable outcome, the critics remain entrenched on the sidelines, divorced from the masses, issuing calls for a puritanical International that never reach the ears of the masses. In the final analysis, they can take comfort in the self-fulfilling function of their prophesy: if more and more people sit on the sidelines, then this process will surely be condemned to failure.

Working people around the world who are attracted to the Fifth Socialist International are not demanding guarantees of revolutionary success before they enter the fray, but see glimmers of hope and the possibility of historical transformation, and they are willing to commit themselves to the struggle. These are the people who make history.

[Ann Robertson is a lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco [at] workerscompass [dot] org.]