Is Venezuela a 'one off'? A response to Richard Seymour's must-read analysis

Image removed.
Supporters of the Bolivarian revolution mobilise in their millions. Caracas, October 3, 2012.

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By Stuart Munckton

October 13, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Richard Seymour has written a very interesting analysis on Venezuela that is a must read for a number of reasons. It is open ended in its assessments and deliberately poses as many questions as it seeks to answer. Fair enough, as the revolution is open ended and poses questions that only the struggle will answer.

It is far superior to the article written by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) Latin American "expert" Mike Gonzalez, that acknowledged reforms, victory against the right, but then presented the ongoing struggles in a basically distorted "from below counterposed to Chavez" line.

In fact, Richard Seymour's article quite brilliantly demolishes the standard sectarian left attacks on Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez -- that he is "just a social democrat with some reforms" or "a bonapartist or left bonapartist playing the classes off against each other".

Richard Seymour's approach is less dogmatic, very different and his analysis is an explicit "rethinking" in light of events. Seymour says:

I think we on the international left have struggled to really comprehend what is going on in Venezuela. It's not a question of us being particularly dim, or not me anyway (you can look after yourselves): it just defies all our expectations. Who would have thought that a politician elected on a "Third Way" ticket with a degree of ruling class support would turn into the mortal enemy of US imperialism and the Venezuelan ruling class? Who could have anticipated that an agenda of constitutional change, none of it terribly radical on the surface, would become a kind of political manifesto, a programme of action in the hands of mobilised masses aiming to make good its promise of equality, participatory democracy and human rights, to realise them in the fullest sense?

There are three key reasons why I think Seymour's contribution is so important: First, it represents a rethink, second it describes the relationship of forces quite brilliantly, and third, even some statements I don't necessarily agree with open up a much deeper and crucial discussion.

1) As indicated above, it is a rethinking and taking a far more open, positive attitude to revolutionary process in Venezuela, recognising the way the class struggle has developed and noting it has happened in a way many leftist did not expect. (That it has taken someone like Seymour this long to write this is no doubt related to being part of a political tendency that sees things in the Russian Revolution framework to such an extent that it does not recognise the Cuban revolution as an anti-capitalist* revolution. [*Author's note: originally that sentence was missing a word -- "anti-capitalist". Without that qualifier it was not only factually wrong, but altered the intended meaning of the sentence, which is that recognising the different ways successful anti-capitalist revolutions have taken place in the past can help us to be more open about the possible forms anti-capitalist revolutions may take in the future. If people wish to focus on this comment, they can, but it is incidental to the point of the article.])

Even those who have recognised successful revolutions last century, such as Cuba's, that broke with the "model" of Russia's, have often taken a long time to recognise the nature of the struggle playing out in Venezuela and Chavez's role in it. One of the earliest to point to the potential significance of Chavez's coming to power for the Latin American struggle was British writer Richard Gott -- who saw, in the context of US domination, the potentially radicalising dynamic any challenge to that domination could have. His book on Chavez, In the Shadow of the Liberator, was written in 1999, the year Chavez assumed office.

2) Seymour's analysis of the Venezuelan process, of the stakes, of the pros and cons in the relationship of forces, is brilliant. It is as sharp and concise a description of the strengths and weaknesses of the revolutionary movement as I can recall reading. He sums up in a couple of incisive paragraphs what I have struggled to try to articulate for years.

It deals with the contradictions and limitations of the Chavista movement in great way -- it is non-moralistic and it doesn't just shout about bureaucrats, it places them in their material context, and nails the complex, fundamentally progressive-but-with-limitations dynamic between the movements "from above" and "from below".

This last point may be the most important because it cuts against the key weakness and key sectarian argument used by left critics (especially those from the International Socialist Tendency tradition, from where Seymour himself originates) of the Bolivarian revolution.

It is the key problem with Mike Gonzalez's article. Seymour acknowledges how the Venezuelan government -- consciously and as a by-product of its reforms -- has encouraged popular mobilisation and organisation. However, he also notes the limitations and contradictions of this dynamic. Again, the way he describes this strikes me as spot on.

Supporters of the Venezuelan revolution need to take real note of the serious dangers it faces and and its limitations. The threats Seymour describes are real. This thing can end in tears and it could end in tears sooner rather than later. The presidential vote was a great step forward, but the elections for state governors in December could be another story.

For these reasons alone, the article is a must read and one of the sharpest analyses in a few paragraphs of the contradictions of the revolution and its challenges.

3) The points that I consider debatable -- such as whether or not a socialist transformation has already begun or Seymour's criticism of Marta Harnecker -- or plain wrong (his final lines that bluntly say you cannot repeat the Venezuelan experience) open up very interesting and important discussions.

On socialist transformation of Venezuela, I think Seymour is partly right but it is necessary to acknowledge some important things here. The first is the changes so far help open the way to a socialist transformation and, second and most important, to recognise that the platform Chavez ran on was for measures, if implemented, that amount to drastic inroads into capital's power and would be a serious opening towards socialist transformation.

A detailed summary of the platform can be read at Venezuelanalysis. You can see in this summary a proposed push to dismantle the capitalist state and further develop popular power as basis of new state, and attacks on capital's economic power and the creation of new socialist-orientated economy.

The most important thing is this platform has just been given a popular mandate in presidential election.

This is new. Chavez did not run on such a detailed radical program in 2006. Much of the talk of a drastic deepening of the revolution came immediately after Chavez was re-elected. The attempt in 2007 to have a raft of radical constitutional reforms, aimed at deepening struggle for socialism (though not all the proposed reforms were revolutionary, some were steps backward) was defeated in a referendum. So, the first attempt to win popular mandate for struggle to seriously deepen revolution towards socialism was defeated, but this time it won.

That opens a new phase in the struggle -- because the struggle will be to make this platform, backed by popular mandate, a reality. Of course, this can only happen through successful struggles by the oppressed themselves and comes up against the contradictions and blocks in Chavismo Seymour describes so well.

On Marta Harnecker's comment that Seymour criticises, that "the pace of change matters less than the general direction in which the government is proceeding". I think Harnecker's comment is true in as far as it seeks to understand that there is a government committed to radical change, or that is at least allowing the potential for a deeper struggle for radical change. It is about recognising the nature of struggle and of the nature of the government, determining a political attitude towards it. This does not mean we should not also recognise serious limitations and contradictions, or that it can be very open ended and that how far such a government is willing to go remains to be tested. And we should recognise that it is not the government that will be decisive, but the actions of the people.

But, it does mean that, however radical measures may seem on paper, they may not always the best way to judge the nature and intentions of a government. This is surely drawn out in Venezuela, where the initial moves by Chavez, on paper, were not at all radical. But, in practice, they were the most radical things he could have done.

The moves that strengthened popular organisation and mobilisation, even around mild measures, created a a situation where the popular classes could mobilise and defeat capital's attacks, and create not just a radicialising dynamic but the actual material forces capable of winning the implementation of more radical measures.

Had Chavez just started with very radical measures, he would have been easily defeated. I think this is what Harnecker is getting at. It is whether a government is willing to use its hold on government in this direction, not whether its measures, looked at in isolation from the relationship of forces and the strength of the masses' organisation and consciousness, seem radical, but whether they work to raise consciousness and organisation so that more radical measures can be won.

The most important of the points I think that need to be debated is Seymour's conclusion that Venezuela is a "one off" and can't be repeated. Of course, on one level he is right. There are very unique aspects to the Venezuelan process -- of which the weight of oil revenues and the role of Chavez are the most notable.

However, much bigger questions about strategy and tactics, about the various forms and channels of class struggle, are opened up and Seymour is trying to block investigating them. It really seems to me he is trying to convince himself on whether or not the still open-ended Venezuelan experience requires a much broader rethinking by revolutionaries.

Far from unique, examples of processes of radical change in 21st century have involved the taking of government (but not state power) by radical forces, the use of government to both resist attacks from capital and introduce progressive reforms, but most importantly as a post to encourage popular mobilisation and organisation in order to shift forces in favour of working people and open the way to deeper struggle for power.

Venezuela is the clearest example, but this is also the way processes have developed in Bolivia and Ecuador, though not in as deep a way (at least yet) as Venezuela. But as long as the radical governments in these countries continue to take stances independent of capital and in favour of popular classes, the potential to deepen it remains.

This is not to say that the development of popular class struggle and revolutionary mass movements will develop in this way. Just that they can and the fact that they have means the possibility of this being repeated should be seriously considered as one way a revolutionary struggle may develop.

The very big issue hanging over this can be summed up in one word: Europe. I suspect Seymour had Europe in mind, if not when he wrote his piece, then certainly when he ended it by insisting that the Venezuelan process could not be repeated.

In Europe, you have a deep political crisis that social mobilisation alone -- as important as that is -- cannot resolve. You have a rejection across southern Europe of brutal austerity, marked by huge protests and strikes. But what is lacking is a mass-based political alternative built out of these social struggles for working people to rally around, that stands for a clear rejection of the austerity and that can pose the question of government power.

This potential opened up in Greece with the rise of Syriza. Standing on an anti-austerity program based on the needs of the people to reject and start reverse capital's attacks, Syriza came close to winning government. This threat sent panic waves through Europe's ruling classes.

What was posed was the prospect of a "workers' government" forming government through an election. Of course, such a government would not simply be able to lay hold on government institutions and just implement its program. It would immediately face severe resistance from capital and its representatives, combined with pressure to modify or abandon its program. The only way its program could be implemented, even parts of it, would be to rely on and seek to deepen the popular mobilisation of the class whose interests the program seeks to advance -- working people and their allies.

It strikes me that far from Venezuela being a one off, due to the deep crisis in Europe, it is the one that has come closest to being repeated – in a different way and in different circumstances of course. (Leaving aside whether or not Venezuela is best described as a "workers' government", its government is a government independent of capital, although with limitations and contradictions, with capital having some ties with sections of the Chavista movement, and with new ties being forged as capital tries to find ways into the forces that govern.)

In no country in Europe does "social struggle" alone look close to defeating austerity. What is lacking is the mass political alternatives that can seriously challenge for government, and be a pole of attraction for working people desperate for a way out. The lack of such things is extremely dangerous for its opens up space to the far right. History has many lessons to offer on this front.

Nowhere in Europe does the road to workers' power look like following the path of the Russian Revolution -- of a quick, seemingly sudden spontaneous formation of a counter-power that rapidly, with leadership of the Bolshevik quality, overthrows the old power and imposes itself.

It looks likely that a more drawn-out struggle to organise a mass movement capable of, not simply organising a big strike or protest, or even winning government, but actually overthrowing capital and imposing its power is going to be needed. And along this path, a political alternative that can, basing itself on the mass movement, seriously challenge for government may well prove an absolute necessary phase.

This is why I think Richard Seymour is wrong to end his excellent article on the argument that Venezuela is unique. But also, this is why that line is so jarring, coming as it does at the end of an extremely thoughtful and very sharp analysis of the class struggle in Venezuela.

[Stuart Munckton is international editor of Green Left Weekly and a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance national executive. His comments are written in a personal capacity.]

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Just on point one of your comment, the following author's note has been added to the article: "That it has taken someone like Seymour this long to write this is no doubt related to being part of a political tendency that sees things in the Russian Revolution framework to such an extent that it does not recognise the Cuban revolution as an anti-capitalist* revolution. [*Author's note: originally that sentence was missing a word -- "anti-capitalist". Without that qualifier it was not only factually wrong, but altered the intended meaning of the sentence, which is that recognising the different ways successful anti-capitalist revolutions have taken place in the past can help us to be more open about the possible forms anti-capitalist revolutions may take in the future. If people wish to focus on this comment, they can, but it is incidental to the point of the article.])"