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Foxes and Grapes - Sectarian stupidity and the Venezuelan revolution

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The attitude to revolution is the acid test for revolutionaries. Yet surprisingly many of those who call themselves Marxists have proved organically incapable of understanding the Venezuelan revolution or intervening in it. Two years ago, when the attempted coup against the Chavez government was defeated by the revolutionary movement of the masses, the response of most of the Left internationally was a deafening silence. Now the ultra-left have suddenly been getting hot under the collar - not about the Venezuelan revolution, but about the apparent opportunism of the Marxist tendency, gathered around this web site. Alan Woods points out a few elementary points that to any serious Marxist would be ABC.
One hot summer's day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. "Just the thing to quench my thirst," says he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: "I am sure they are sour."

Aesop, The Fox and the Grapes

The attitude to revolution is the acid test for revolutionaries. Yet surprisingly many of those who call themselves Marxists have proved organically incapable of understanding the Venezuelan revolution or intervening in it. Two years ago, when the attempted coup against the Chavez government was defeated by the revolutionary movement of the masses, the response of most of the Left internationally was a deafening silence. They had nothing to say. Apparently, they could not even find Venezuela on the map.

This should not surprise us. The sectarian groups that are always fiddling and fussing on the fringes of the workers' movement in all countries are far too busy constructing mass revolutionary parties of two men and a dog to bother their head about the real movement of the working class, whether in Venezuela or anywhere else.

So it is a matter of some surprise when all of a sudden these ladies and gentlemen wake up and begin shouting about the Venezuelan revolution. Well, not exactly about the Venezuelan revolution, but rather about the terrible crimes of Alan Woods and Marxist.com in relation to the Venezuelan revolution. For such groups, you see, the real movement of the working class is not very interesting. Instead, they spend every minute of their lives studying the websites of other left groups to see where they can attack them.

Instead of attacking the reactionaries, capitalists and imperialists, it is far more interesting to spend one's time attacking the real enemy – other groups on the Left. It reminds people of the famous scene in the film The Life of Brian, where one small group is obsessed with fighting another. Such groups are really only fit to be laughed at, although their publications are far inferior to a Monty Python film script. In and of itself they are of no interest. But unfortunately it gives Marxism – and, sad to say, particularly Trotskyism such a bad name among honest workers and youth everywhere.

The Marxist tendency has many enemies: the hungry wolves of imperialism and capitalism and their reformist allies in the labour movement. These are serious enemies, and most of our time is taken up fighting them. Then there are the sects, who run after us barking and snapping at our heels like a little dog. Normally we just ignore them. But occasionally – very occasionally – we are obliged to deliver a well-aimed kick to rid ourselves (at least for a while) of a small irritation.

In recent weeks, certain sections of the sectarian fraternity have been whipping themselves into a fury (they must always be furious about something) about Alan Woods' visit to Caracas and meeting with President Chavez. This has sent them into a paroxysm of rage. They see such actions as a betrayal of the working class, socialism and the revolution. Around this incident they have erected a whole mythology. Of course, they have plenty of time for such activities, which serve as a substitute for serious work.

What are the facts? Alan Woods, the editor of the British Marxist magazine Socialist Appeal and Marxist.com, was invited to attend an international forum in solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution last April. No conditions of any sort were attached to this invitation. The author of these lines had complete freedom to defend his point of view – the point of view of revolutionary Marxism – before a large and very varied audience, including workers, trade unionists and revolutionaries from all over Latin America.

I did not hesitate to accept. I have no reason to regret this decision, which opened many possibilities for the revolutionary Marxist tendency throughout Latin America. As a matter of fact, I believe that we had no right to refuse such an offer. None of the groups that are now frothing at the mouth about this visit were invited to this meeting. This is the main reason for their fit of indignation. In the hypothetical event of their having received such an invitation, would they have accepted? We shall never know. But it does not matter, because, anyway, we all know from Aesop that the grapes were sour.

Now the question arises: why was Alan Woods invited and his critics not? The reason is not hard to find. We were invited because, unlike our sectarian friends, we have actively intervened in the Venezuelan revolution from the very beginning. Our articles, which have put a consistent Marxist and revolutionary case, have been widely circulated inside Venezuela. Our ideas are well known in revolutionary circles and have had a certain impact. What echo have the ideas of our critics had in Venezuela? None at all. But then, it is difficult for a deafening silence to have any echo of any kind.

Now at long last, they have found a voice. They have purchased a school atlas and discovered that there is a country called Venezuela. Ah well, better late than never! But the purpose of this sudden interest in geography is not to intervene in the Venezuelan revolution. No! It is to attack Alan Woods and the comrades of the Revolutionary Marxist Current, who are actively striving to build a Marxist tendency in Venezuela.

What are we accused of? It seems that In Defence of Marxism and Socialist Appeal are so enamoured with the "Bolivarian revolution" in Venezuela to the extent that we provided a "Marxist" gloss for pro-Chávez politics. The fact that our friends place the revolution in inverted commas already tells us a great deal about where they are coming from. In common with all the other sects they refuse to acknowledge the existence of a revolution in Venezuela. That is their starting point.

We have already dealt with this in the article Marxists and the Venezuelan Revolution. In this article we pointed out that, as Trotsky explained, the essential feature of any real revolution is the active participation of the masses, which take the road of revolution, seeking a way out of the crisis. This is the decisive feature of the Venezuelan revolution, and one that not one of the sects has understood. The magnificent movement of the Venezuelan workers, peasants and urban poor is an inspiration to the workers and youth of the whole world. They saved the revolution two years ago and they have been the main motive force ever since.

Sectarian impotence

It is the elementary duty of Marxists to stand with the masses against imperialism and counterrevolution. Yes or no? To this the sectarian has no answer. He is too busy searching for sticks and stones to throw at the revolutionary Marxists to notice anything as trivial as the mass movement. Real Marxists, on the contrary, take their starting point from the mass movement, orient towards it, enter into a dialogue with its most advanced elements and try to win them over to a consistently revolutionary class line.

The sectarian is like a man who wishes to learn to swim by reading books about swimming. He learns all the strokes by heart and can give you a very complete lecture on the art of swimming, complete with diagrams on anatomy, equations on the resistance of the water, a thermometer to measure the correct temperature of the water etc. But when the time comes to take the plunge, he suddenly turns away, complaining that the water is too cold, the conditions are not right and a hundred other reasons that prevent him from swimming.

However, when such a man sees someone actually swimming in the water, his indignation knows no bounds: "This is intolerable! That man is using the wrong stroke. In fact, he should not be swimming there at all. I should be there instead of him. I'm sure I could do this much better – if only I could actually get into the water!" Of course, such people will never actually learn to swim. But they will always give you the best possible advice on how it should be done and mercilessly criticise any perceived deviation from the correct style and stroke.

In an effort to discredit the Marxists, the sects have taken a lot of time reading every line of our articles on Venezuela. We are delighted to see such a degree of attention, and hope that our friends have learned something useful from all this reading. But, based on past experience, one is not too confident in this respect.

One of these critics, having read every dot and comma of my articles, ends up with a slight problem. He cannot find a single thing to criticise in what I have actually written, and is compelled to resort to the murky realms of psychoanalysis in order to find fault. It is quite amusing to read a "criticism" in which every other line says: "Alan is quite right to say this" and "Alan is quite right to say that" – but of course, "he does not really mean it". This is really scraping the bottom of the barrel!

Active intervention needed

If one is writing articles that hardly anybody reads – which is always the case with sects – you can afford to write anything that comes into your head. It really makes no difference – as with the articles of our critics. But the revolutionary Marxist tendency, which I have the honour of representing has been actively intervening in the movement of the masses in Venezuela, winning workers and youth, and building the Revolutionary Marxist Current. Our articles are read by a large number of activists every week. This means that we have to think carefully what we write. Our critics, on the other hand, are under no such constraints and can be as irresponsible as they like.

We have always taken a firm and principled stand in relation to the Venezuelan revolution from the beginning. We have never deviated a single millimetre from a consistent revolutionary class position. Nor can our critics quote a single line to show that we have. Right from the beginning we have pointed out that the Venezuelan revolution has begun, but it is not finished, and it cannot be finished until the power of the Venezuelan oligarchy is broken.

This means the expropriation of the land, banks and big industry under workers' control and management. It means the arming of the people. It means the setting up of action committees linked up on a local, regional and national basis. It means that the working class must organize independently and strive to place itself at the head of the nation. And it means that the Marxist tendency must strive to win over the majority of the revolutionary movement.

We have explained this a thousand times. We have written it in articles and documents. I personally have defended these views in large public meetings in Venezuela, in a meeting of 200 leading activists of the Bolivarian circles in Caracas, and on Venezuelan radio and television. Our views are widely known in Venezuela and internationally. They are posted on our website which receives an average of 20,000 successful page visits every day from all over the world.

It is frankly difficult to know what more we can do to explain our position. Yet our critics are not satisfied. Why are they not satisfied? Because, they say, we are too friendly to Chavez. They refer disdainfully to the interview that I had with Hugo Chavez, which they triumphantly point to as incontrovertible proof of "betrayal".

We would like to satisfy everybody, of course. But alas, this is not always possible. How can we satisfy our critics? What position do they advocate? They would like us to denounce Chavez as a bourgeois Bonapartist! This proposal shows just how far removed these people are from reality. It would immediately cut us off, not just from the masses, who are firmly behind Chavez, but also from the activists, most of whom remain loyal to Chavez, even if they have growing doubts and criticisms

The sects imagine that to criticise always means to denounce. That is why their articles and documents are always full of the most hysterical denunciations of everyone, except themselves. Every labour leader is described a traitor. Every strike will be betrayed before it has even begun, and so on and so forth. Hugo Chavez is a traitor (and this must be shouted from the rooftops). Alan Woods is a traitor. In fact, everyone is a traitor, except myself and the little sect to which I belong.

Not long ago I had a conversation with a religious fanatic who assured me that on the Day of Judgement, only the members of his particular group (I cannot remember which sect it was) were destined to go to Heaven. I pointed out that therefore everyone else in the world would go to Hell, and that, this being the case, the outlook for several billion men, women and children was rather bleak. To this, he merely shrugged his shoulders. It seemed to me he did not even understand what I was saying.

One has a similar feeling when reading the material of the political sects. They have a similar psychology. No doubt they feel much better after having verbally abused everyone else. They can then retire to bed with a splendid feeling of superiority and not a care in the world. However, this kind of thing alienates honest workers and fills them with disgust. It is not the method of Marxism but only a crude caricature that serves to discredit Marxism. It is completely counterproductive. The workers are alienated by these tactics, which actually serve to drive them into the arms of the very leaders they have denounced.

We have not and will not adopt such tactics. It is necessary to distinguish Marxism from other trends in the mass movement, but this is not done by bawling and shouting insults. . Our criticism has a political character and is posed in a positive way. We follow the advice of Karl Marx, who, when he had to work with the English reformist trade union leaders on the General Council of the First International, said that he was always "mild in manner but bold in content."

Our method is not the shrill denunciations of the sects but that which Lenin advocated in 1917 – patiently explain! That is the real method of Bolshevism. That is the only way to proceed, whether in Venezuela or anywhere else.

Tactics in ex-colonial countries

Our critics object, in principle, to my meeting with Chavez and our friendly attitude to the chavista movement. It would be impossible for a serious Marxist to pose the question in this way. Such an attitude would be a complete violation of everything that Lenin and Trotsky ever wrote on the colonial revolution. Lenin and Trotsky explained that in colonial and semi-colonial countries it was an absolute obligation of the Marxists to support anti-imperialist movements, to enter into contact with them, to establish militant agreements with them and to try to push them to the left, while simultaneously working to build up the independent forces of the proletariat.

Of course, in participating in a united front the prior condition is that the proletarian tendency must at all times retain complete organizational and political independence. It must retain the freedom of criticism. Lenin explained that when one is fighting alongside allies, it is necessary always to keep one eye on the enemy and the other eye on the ally, who at any time can break ranks and leave you in the lurch. All that is true and is really ABC for the Marxists.

In general, the class relations in semi-colonial nations are more complex than in the advanced capitalist countries. Side by side with the proletariat there are a large number of petty bourgeois and semi-proletarian layers, peasants, unemployed, street vendors, shantytown dwellers, etc. In order to prepare the conditions for the socialist revolution, it is necessary for the proletariat not only to develop its own independent organizations, but also to establish firm links with these layers and to impel them in a revolutionary direction. Without such work, the proletarian revolution would be only an empty phrase.

In Venezuela the overwhelming mass of these layers (and the big majority of the working class) are chavistas. If the Venezuelan Marxists are not to be condemned to complete isolation and impotence, they must work to establish links with the Bolivarian movement, to push it to the left and try to win it to the policies and programme of Marxism.

"But this means winning over the rank and file, not the leaders!" This argument of the sects is as false as everything else they write. The masses in Venezuela follow their leaders and have faith in them. They are not yet convinced of the ideas of the Marxists. That will come from their experience, and we have to patiently go through their experiences with them, patiently explaining what is necessary at each stage.

The idea that it is possible to separate the masses from their leaders by simple denunciations and ultimatums is foolish in the extreme. It is the notorious "theory" put forward by the German Stalinists in their ultra-left phase in the early 1930s of the so-called "united front from below", which Trotsky firmly rejected. They said to the Social Democratic workers: "We invite you to join us in a united front, but your leaders are all bourgeois traitors, so you must leave them behind." It does not require much imagination to know how the Social Democratic workers reacted to this offer.

When our critics object to my meeting with Chavez and our joint work with the chavistas, what are they trying to say? Are they saying that it is impermissible in principle for Marxists to enter into a dialogue with the leaders of a revolutionary democratic movement in a semi-colonial country, standing at the head of millions of workers, peasants and poor people? Are we saying that in a semi-colonial country, it is impermissible for Marxists to form a united front with such people, to enter into a militant agreement for the purpose of the struggle against imperialism and the oligarchy? This is really the height of childishness.

The Marxists do not advance the united front as a manoeuvre or a trick to fool the masses, but as an honest proposal for joint activities to achieve an agreed aim, such as the struggle against imperialism. We agree that this is necessary, and we will participate in each and every activity that contributes to the success of the anti-imperialist struggle. But we point out that the only way to defeat imperialism and consolidate the gains of the (bourgeois democratic) Bolivarian revolution is by expropriating the oligarchy. That is to say, we maintain that the only way to achieve the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Venezuela is by transferring power to the working class, in alliance with the poor peasants and the urban poor.

We have maintained this position consistently from the beginning, and have advocated it from every available platform. It goes without saying that most of the work of the Venezuelan Marxists is at rank and file level. But where it is possible to put forward our arguments to the leaders of the Bolivarian movement – including Hugo Chavez – we will not hesitate to do so.

Our attitude to Chavez

Trotsky said that the colonial revolution can throw up some outstanding leaders, and Hugo Chavez is one of these leaders. That is why the imperialists have bent all their energies to removing him. In the referendum campaign, the Venezuelan Marxists are fighting shoulder to shoulder with our Bolivarian comrades to defeat the counterrevolutionary opposition. We defend Chavez because his removal by the reactionaries would deal a shattering blow against the revolutionary forces in Venezuela and all Latin America. This is a concrete example of the united front in action.

But does this mean that there are no differences between Hugo Chavez and the Marxists? This does not follow at all, and we have never said such a thing. In the course of our conversation, Chávez told me that he was not a Marxist. I told him that I was. The standpoint of Hugo Chavez is that of petty-bourgeois revolutionary democracy. That of Marxism is proletarian revolution.

Under the specific conditions of the Venezuelan revolution – the starting point of which is the struggle against imperialism, for national self-determination, for the right of the Venezuelan people to own and control their own natural resources and decide their own destiny without outside interference, it is both possible and necessary for these two trends to collaborate. But the differences remain, and must be settled one way or another in the future.

Insofar as the revolutionary democracy fights against imperialism, we can and must work with it and try to push it to the left, while building an independent revolutionary proletarian current. But by their very nature, even the best of the revolutionary democrats will tend to compromise and halt halfway. They do not have a clear class vision of the anti-imperialist struggle and try to unite "the nation" on the basis of a programme which, despite its radical aspects, does not go beyond the capitalist system.

This is the fatal weakness of petty-bourgeois revolutionary democracy, and one that ultimately can lead to surrender to the oligarchy and imperialism. That danger is clearly present now. However, this outcome is not set in stone. The dynamics of the Venezuelan revolution is determined above all by the balance of class forces. The magnificent movement of the masses has intervened at each decisive stage to defeat the counterrevolution and push the revolution forward. We must base ourselves on the mass movement, on the unerring revolutionary instincts of the workers, peasants and urban poor, and attempt to give a clear organizational and political form to these instincts.

My meeting with Chavez

"Woods was received by President Chávez for a private audience that lasted well over an hour", growl our critics. Yes, that is true, and that fact reveals something, does it not? It shows that the Marxist tendency is taken seriously in Venezuela, in a way that other groups are not. It shows that the Hands off Venezuela campaign has earned us respect, which others have not earned and do not deserve.

Let us be clear. The task of building the forces of Marxism takes place not at the top but in the rank and file, where the Revolutionary Marxist Current is working very successfully. But that does not mean that it is incorrect to enter into contacts with the leaders of the Bolivarian movement, to open a dialogue with them and, to the degree that it is possible, to attempt to influence them. To what degree such discussions will have an effect it is impossible to say. That will depend, not on conversations, but on the class balance of forces and the way the revolution develops.

A lot of fuss has been made about what was really a very limited contact between the leader of the Bolivarian revolution and the editor of Marxist.com. It has even been suggested that I have become (or aspire to become) one of the President's advisers. I believe the President has plenty of advisers – not all of whom are giving him the best advice, it is true. I have received no invitation to join this team, and do not expect to receive one. Nor do I think that my influence over the President's actions amounts to much. Certainly, some of his recent speeches reflect influences that are very far distant from any opinions of mine.

Having made that clear, I am entitled to ask whether it is wrong in principle to attempt to influence the leaders of a revolutionary movement involving millions of workers and poor peasants? If so, I beg to differ. If it is possible to influence Chavez or any other leader of the Bolivarian movement, we should certainly attempt to do so, as Lenin and Trotsky did on many occasions. However, that is not our main task. Our main task is to work patiently at rank and file level, building the Marxist tendency. That must always be kept firmly in mind.

There are different currents in the movement, which is far from homogeneous. In the last analysis, these currents reflect antagonistic class interests. It is necessary to adopt a careful attitude to the different tendencies in the Bolivarian movement. The leadership is under the pressure of imperialism and the opposition, and one wing – the reformist wing - reflects that pressure. But there is also powerful pressure from the rank and file of the movement, from the workers and peasants, and that finds a reflection in the left wing.

There is a sharp conflict at the top of the Bolivarian movement between the right wing, Social Democratic, reformist tendency, who are striving to halt the revolution and do a deal with the oligarchy and imperialism and the left wing Chavistas, who want to carry the revolution to the end. Hugo Chavez has sometimes reflected the pressures of the left wing and the masses. But at other times he has bent to the extreme pressure of the reformist wing. Everyone knows that it is not an easy thing to get to see the President, and that an audience of almost an hour ad a half is almost unprecedented. It is also no secret that the reformist bureaucracy in the palace was very unhappy about this meeting and attempted to prevent it from taking place.

Was there any principled reason for not meeting the President? None at all. There were no conditions, and no restrictions on what could be said. It gave me an opportunity that few have had to form my own opinion about the man and his ideas. I later wrote about my impressions in Encounters with Hugo Chavez. This article was seized upon by the sects to "prove" that I have given an "unqualified endorsement" to Chavez.

The article which provokes this outburst of indignation does not provide an analysis of Chavez or chavismo but is a more or less journalistic account of my meeting with the President. It is rather literary and descriptive than theoretical. There is a place for such literature on a Marxist site, but that is not the place to look for a rigorous account of our position on Chavez and Venezuela. That can be found in many other writings, such as Theses on Revolution and Counterrevolution.

However, if our critics had taken the trouble to quote even this article fairly, instead of taking isolated phrases, torn from their context and presented in such a way as to give a distorted and dishonest impression of our views, they would have seen that we put forward the revolutionary Marxist policy very clearly. Right at the beginning of this article I wrote the following lines, which I quote in full so there can be no possible ambiguity:

"I also had the opportunity to meet and talk with the President of the Bolivarian Republic, Hugo Chavez. As a writer and Marxist historian I am used to writing about men and women who have made history. But it is not every day that one has the opportunity to observe a protagonist of the historical process at close quarters, to ask questions and to form an impression, not from newspaper reports but from personal experience.

"I should like to make a few things clear before proceeding to my subject. I approach the Venezuelan Revolution as a revolutionary, not as an external observer, and certainly not as a sycophant and a flatterer. Flattery is the enemy of revolutions because it is the enemy of truth, and revolutions need above all to know the truth. The phenomenon of ‘revolutionary tourism' I find profoundly abhorrent. It is particularly out of place in the case of Venezuela, because here the Revolution finds itself in the greatest danger. Stupid speeches that constantly assert the wonders of the Bolivarian Revolution, but conveniently ignore the dangers it still faces, are false friends of the Revolution in whom no reliance can be placed.

"A successful Revolution always has many ‘friends'. Those middle class elements who are attracted to power as flies to a honey pot, who are ready to sing the praises of the Revolution as long as it remains in power, who do nothing useful to save it from its enemies, who weep a few crocodile tears when it is overthrown, and the next day pass onto the next item on Life's agenda – such ‘friends' are worth two a penny. A real friend is not someone who always tells you that you are right. A real friend is someone who is not afraid to look you straight in the eye and tell you that you are mistaken.

"The best friends of the Venezuelan Revolution – in fact its only real friends is the working class of the world and its most conscious representatives – are the revolutionary Marxists. They are the people who will move heaven and earth to defend the Venezuelan Revolution against its enemies. At the same time, the true friends of the Revolution – honest and loyal friends – will always speak their mind without fear. Where we consider that the right road is being taken, we will praise. Where we think mistakes are being made, we will give friendly but firm criticism. What other kind of behaviour should be expected of real revolutionaries and internationalists?

"In speech after speech in Venezuela – including several televised interviews – I was asked my opinion about the Venezuelan Revolution, and answered in the following sense: ‘Your Revolution is an inspiration to the workers of the whole world: you have accomplished miracles; the driving force of the Revolution, however, is the working class and the masses, and that is the secret of its future success. However, the Revolution has not been finished and will not be finished unless and until you destroy the economic power of the bankers and capitalists. In order to do this, the masses must be armed and organised in action committees, organised at all levels. The workers must have their own independent organizations and we must build the Marxist Revolutionary Tendency'."

In these lines, which have been widely published in English and Spanish all over the world, there is not a hint of opportunism. They accurately reflect the true content and spirit of the programme of revolutionary Marxism that we have consistently defended. The assertion that in some way my meeting with Chavez represented an abandonment of these ideas and principles is a complete invention of ill-intentioned people.

Alas! Some people are never satisfied. Once they begin to grumble there is no end of it. That is their privilege. Grumbling costs nothing and is one of life's little pleasures when you have nothing else to do. They do not like what I write about Chavez in my article, where I write that "Hugo Chávez for the first time gave the poor and downtrodden a voice and some hope." And, "From my limited contacts with Hugo Chávez, I am firmly convinced of his personal honesty, courage and dedication to the cause of the masses, the oppressed and exploited."

These are my personal impressions of Hugo Chavez, who, as a man, I found to be honest and courageous. I see no reason to change that view. But do these lines really signify an unqualified endorsement of Chavez? They signify no such thing. Our attitude to Chavez has all along been one of critical support. That is to say, we will support Chavez to the degree that he strikes blows against imperialism and the oligarchy, but we will criticise him when he vacillates or makes concessions to imperialism and the oligarchy.

Our policy is firmly in line with the Leninist policy of the united front: march separately and strike together. We do not give anyone a blank cheque. Following the advice of Lenin, we keep an eye on our allies. At no time do we forget that we represent two different tendencies that can and must collaborate but which at a given stage will diverge.

The power of Marxist ideas

Our critics are even more displeased by the favourable attitude shown by Hugo Chavez towards certain books. He is, as he told me, an avid reader, and has stated on several occasions that he was impressed by my book Reason in Revolt. The fact that the President has given his personal support to the publishing of the Venezuelan edition of Reason in Revolt is mentioned, as though this were something suspicious or reprehensible. On the contrary, it is a very positive development, and only a hardened sectarian could complain about it.

Why did President Chavez not speak favourably about any other Marxist group? Not because of their "revolutionary intransigence", but simply because none of them had lifted a finger to support the Venezuelan revolution against imperialism or taken the slightest interest in it – until now. They claim that Chavez "flattered" me in his programme Alo Presidente, when he made favourable mentions of Reason in Revolt and also Bolshevism – the Road to Revolution.

It is true that the President made some complementary comments about my book Reason in Revolt and also quoted approvingly from these books on the programme. Whether or not this constitutes flattery I do not know. I do know, however, that these books have been very well received by many people. I do not take this as praise for myself, but as a confirmation of the power of the marvellous ideas of Marxism. As for myself, flattery and insults leave me equally unmoved. The cause of the socialist revolution is too important for us to worry about such trivia.

What we have here is absolutely typical of the method of the sects. It is not a serious scientific method. It has nothing in common with Marxism. It is trivial and superficial. It is based on a string of anecdotes and gossip, which is meant to be a substitute for serious argument and analysis. It is not meant to clarify or to raise the political level of the reader. It is only meant to denigrate, to insult and to ridicule – and they do not even know how to do that effectively. In short, one can learn absolutely nothing from this. It is only a horrid lesson on how not to work, speak or write.

As the author of a number of Marxist books, I would like to say the following. The fact that the President of Venezuela quoted from Marxist books on television before millions of people should be a matter of satisfaction to any left-wing activist who is not complexly blinded by sectarian prejudice. Irrespective of what opinion one has of Hugo Chavez, the propagation of Marxist literature to a broad audience of millions – mainly workers and peasants – was a very progressive development, which can only benefit the Venezuelan Marxists who are working to win the majority of the revolutionary movement.

I might add that many workers, trade unionists and activists who saw the programme later commented favourably on it and expressed their wholehearted congratulations to me. That is important. The whining of the sects is not.

The Hands off Venezuela Campaign

Our amiable critics also attack the "Hands off Venezuela" (HOV) campaign, arguing that it provides a left cover for Chávez. They complain that the HOV statement requires signatories to agree to the "defence of the revolutionary process" in Venezuela and its website is subtitled "in solidarity with the Venezuelan revolution".

But wait a second! Everybody knows that the US intervention in Venezuela is directed against the government of Hugo Chavez. The struggle in Venezuela is a struggle between two camps. On the one hand there are the counterrevolutionary forces (the "opposition") led by the bankers, capitalists and landlords, with the support of the millionaire press, the Church and all other reactionary forces. On the other hand there is the working class, the peasants and the urban poor who support Chavez and the Bolivarian Movement.

The question is therefore not abstract but very concrete. And to a concrete question one must always give a concrete answer. We ask our critics a straight question: In the struggle between the chavistas and the counterrevolutionary opposition, is it permissible for the Marxist tendency to be neutral. Yes or no? In the present referendum campaign, what advice should the Marxists give to the working class?

Let us spell it out in very simple terms, so that even a sectarian can understand: to be neutral in this struggle would be a betrayal of the revolution, the working class and socialism. It would completely discredit the Marxists in the eyes of the masses and render impossible the building of a revolutionary party in Venezuela. And although our critics are always talking about the revolutionary party (they are very good at talking), they are only good at building revolutionary parties in the clouds. In this sinful earth, however, they show that they have not the slightest idea of how the party can be built.

As Marxists we do not confine our activities to endless discussions over a cup of coffee but we strive to intervene in the real movement. That is why we set up the Hands off Venezuela campaign (HOV). When was this campaign established and for what reason? It was set up as a response to the counterrevolutionary bosses' lockout (incorrectly described as a "strike" by the media) in order to mobilise the world labour movement in support of the Venezuelan revolution.

This campaign has had quite an important echo in the workers' movement internationally, as a glance at our website will immediately show. I believe it was, at least until recently, the only significant attempt on the Left internationally to mobilize solidarity for the Venezuelan revolution. What was the response of our critics to this? Nothing – just the same deafening silence. They did not lift a finger to aid the people of Venezuela but confined themselves to pontificating about Chavez, as they are still doing today.

The sects accuse us of dissolving working class politics in Venezuela into "Chavism", or at least in providing a Marxist justification for the same. This is quite incredible. Our friends have an amazing ability to read and read and not understand a single word of what they have read. In all our articles and documents and speeches we have stressed the need to maintain the political and organizational independence of the proletariat in the Venezuelan revolution.

There is absolutely no truth in the allegation that we are for the "for dissolving working class politics in Venezuela into Chávism." But in order to build the Marxist tendency it is necessary to gain the ear of the workers, starting with the active layer. It is necessary to express our ideas in such a way that they will get an echo. The overwhelming majority of the workers in Venezuela support the Bolivarian movement and insofar as they are active are active in and around it. For a sectarian, of course, what the workers think is irrelevant. They do not write for the workers but only for themselves and other like-minded groups. Precisely for that reason they will never build anything.

In order to reach the workers and revolutionary youth of Venezuela it is absolutely necessary to participate in the mass movement, which in Venezuela is the Bolivarian movement. Outside this movement there is nothing, and as the ancient Greeks pointed out: "From nothing comes nothing." If what the sects mean by "not dissolving the working class into Chavism" means that we must build the revolutionary movement outside the movement of the masse, we can only shrug our shoulders and say: "After you, gentlemen!"

The sects and the referendum

Apart from their exquisite methods of polemicising, the timing of these people is really tremendous. They demand that we denounce Chavez right in the middle of the recall referendum, when all the forces of reaction are united to bring down the government and install a counter-revolutionary regime by constitutional means. That would be a severe blow, not just to the Venezuelan revolution but also to the revolution throughout Latin America. Only a blind man could fail to understand this. And there are none so blind as they who will not see.

The building of a revolutionary party is an art that cannot be learned from a cookbook. It requires not only a firm and principled line, but also tremendous tactical and organizational flexibility and a good sense of timing: every vegetable has its season, as my good friend and comrade Ted Grant likes to say. It is necessary to understand at every moment what tasks are on the order of the day. At this moment, it is necessary to mobilize all the forces of the mass movement, to strain every muscle, to defeat the counterrevolutionaries in the referendum. All future developments depend on this.

What have our critics got to say about the referendum? Not a lot. They fiddle and fuss about this or that quotation by Alan Woods, but on the urgent tasks of the Venezuelan revolution they have, as usual, nothing to say. They cannot (one presumes) support the opposition. On the other hand, if they support Chavez, would they not be committing the unpardonable sin of "providing Chávez with an unqualified endorsement" and providing a "Marxist left cover for dissolving the working class into chavismo". In short, they end in a complete mess.

The irresponsible phrase-mongering of the ultra-lefts, which sounds so nice in the cafes and bars of London and Paris, does not sound so good in Caracas. Where is the "independent proletarian policy" in the referendum campaign? A referendum is not an election. You cannot call for an independent workers' candidate. You can only vote yes, no or not vote. What should we do? Should we perhaps call on the workers to abstain? But abstention is no position, and the mass of workers would see it (quite correctly) as assisting the reaction.

The only correct policy is to participate actively in the movement to defeat the opposition, while at the same time opposing the attempts of the right wing reformists to reach a deal with the opposition, and demand that the revolution must not be halted halfway but strike a decisive blow against imperialism and the oligarchy.

Reformist intrigues

What is needed is a political line that steers clear of both ultra-leftism and opportunism. In the given conditions in Venezuela, the only correct revolutionary policy, the only permissible line of action, is critical support for Chavez. Our critics complain because I described Hugo Chavez as an honest and courageous man, but I have said many times that, while President Chavez is a courageous and honest man, courage and honesty are not enough to ensure the success of the revolution. A correct policy is necessary. And our policies differ in important respects from those currently defended by Hugo Chavez.

Since Chavez is not a Marxist, he thinks it is possible to develop the country and to rid it from imperialist domination within the limits of capitalism. This is not possible. It is the fatal weakness in his programme, policy and perspectives and it is this that is the dividing line between us. For all his courage, he can be pushed, and is being pushed in different directions according to the pressures exerted.

When I spoke to him in April, there were certain indications that he was moving to the left. Certainly, I know for a fact that his militant anti-imperialist speeches were causing alarm among the reformist wing in the leadership. But in recent weeks the pressures of imperialism and the oligarchy have been enormously intensified. They are reflected through the right wing reformist faction that now has gained control of the palace of Miraflores and is exerting pressure on Chavez to modify his anti-imperialist stance. There are indications that they are succeeding.

There are clear signs that the right wing of the leadership has gone onto the offensive in the last two months and is now in the ascendant. The acceptance of the referendum – despite the well-known fact that the opposition did not get the requisite number of signatures – is proof of this. The vanguard of the Bolivarian movement were right to be suspicious of the referendum. Over generations, Washington has developed a formidable arsenal for maintaining and expanding its power on a world scale. Part of this arsenal – but only part – consists of rockets, tanks and bombers. But it possesses other, no less deadly weapons. Having failed repeatedly to remove Chavez by a frontal assault, they are resorting to behind-the-scenes manoeuvres and intrigues.

A pernicious role is being played by the Organization of American States and by Jimmy Carter, the ex-President of the USA who is pretending to "mediate" between Chavez and the opposition. Carter is a poisonous snake in the grass. This smooth-talking religious hypocrite, with his permanent smile and weasel words about democracy and human rights, is far more dangerous than George W. Bush, who at least has the merit of attacking from the front. Ex-President Carter, on the other hand, powerfully brings to mind the phrase of Shakespeare: "There are daggers in men's smiles."

Are the reformists attempting to reach some kind of secret deal with Carter and the OAS? It is possible. They would see this as "realistic politics". These elements distrust Chavez, who they see as excessively radical. They wish to isolate him from the masses and there is even talk of "chavismo without Chavez." If so, the outlook is not good. It is no more possible for the Revolution to do a deal with the Counterrevolution than it is possible to mix oil with water. Of course, the President of Venezuela can discuss with whomever he likes, but revolutionaries must be on their guard and warn against any concessions to people like Carter and Cisneros.

Carter represents the left boot of US imperialism just as Rumsfeld represents the right boot. Although the President has not toned down his anti imperialist speeches, it is clear that Chavez is under pressure from the oligarchy and imperialism. In addition there are the usual siren voices in the leadership of the Bolivarian Movement calling for a "more cautious" approach, dialogue and negotiation, etc. All this is done in the name "of developing Venezuela, having a patriotic approach and in opposition to the oligarchy which has sold out to imperialism."

The oligarchy has indeed sold out to imperialism. More than this, it constitutes a kind of Fifth Column of imperialism on Venezuelan soil. As long as the oligarchy continues to hold important levers of economic power in its hands – especially the banks, the gains of the Revolution will never be safe. At a mass meeting one week ago, Chavez spoke, in very strong terms, of defeating the oligarchy. This was ecstatically received by the masses, which fervently desire the completion of the Revolution.

Chavez has held meetings with employers - not small business but representatives of big business such as those from Daimler-Chrysler. Chávez has also met with Cisneros (the richest man in Venezuela and the owner of the mass media that supported the coup two years ago). The employers have made all sorts of demands and Chavez has made all sorts of offers to conciliate them. He says that the Bolivarian Revolution is not a communist revolution and does not threaten private property.

Here we see the fundamental difference between Marxism and the programme of even the most advanced petty bourgeois revolutionary democracy. The notion that the Venezuelan revolution can succeed while the capitalists and bankers continue to hold vital levers of economic power is a fatal mistake. Under modern conditions the bourgeoisie of colonial or ex-colonial countries is incapable of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Not a single one of the gains of the revolution can be guaranteed without the expropriation of the oligarchy.

The refusal of Chavez to take decisive action against the oligarchy means that the whole thing can be thrown into reverse. Experience has shown that "moderation" will not persuade the enemies of the Revolution to adopt a more favourable attitude. On the contrary, weakness invites aggression. The policies advocated by the reformists, who now have the upper hand in the palace of Miraflores, constitutes the main danger to the Bolivarian Revolution.

A sense of proportion is needed

Despite everything, the mood of the masses remains overwhelmingly favourable to Chavez, but critical of the reformist leaders those of the Comando Ayacucho which was unceremoniously ditched a few weeks ago, after having became completely discredited. While maintaining a principled stand, we must put forward slogans and demands that can get an echo in the mass movement, starting with the active layers. The Marxists cannot go too far ahead of the masses, or they would cut themselves off.

We must keep a sense of proportion – something the ultra-lefts never possess. We must not forget that our enemy is imperialism and the oligarchy. We are fighting to defeat that enemy and will willingly collaborate with any other forces that are doing the same. At the same time we will sharply criticize those elements in the leadership of the Bolivarian movement who are adopting a conciliatory attitude to the enemy, who are trying to halt the revolution and reach a deal with the oligarchy and imperialism. We must say concretely what measures are needed to carry the revolution forward.

We direct our fire against the reformist tendency that is strong in the upper layers of the movement but practically non-existent in the rank and file. This is what the most advanced elements in the vanguard want, but it is not enough for our ultra-left critics. They demand that we launch a frontal attack on the bourgeois Chavez! They demand that we proclaim the revolutionary party in Venezuela and break from the Bolivarian movement! They demand – they demand – in fact, there is no end to their demands. But since they have absolutely no forces to carry out these demands, and since we do not require their advice on swimming or anything else, we can safely ignore their demands and get on with our work building the forces of genuine Marxism in Venezuela and internationally, since we are the only tendency in a position to do it.

The Hands off Venezuela campaign has indeed been a great success. This fact was recognised by Chávez, when in March this year he publicly expressed his gratitude to In Defence of Marxism expressing his "gratitude for your solidarity actions in favour of the Bolivarian Revolution". This, for some reason, is taken as further "proof" of our "betrayal". This stands the truth completely on its head. To defend the Venezuelan revolution against imperialism and the counterrevolutionary oligarchy is not a betrayal. To fail to do so is.

Let us speak clearly. This silence of these so-called Marxist groups at a time when the Venezuelan revolution was struggling for survival was, and is, a scandal and a disgrace. If we agree that the main test for revolutionary organizations is their attitude to revolution, then we have to say that all the groups who today unite in attacking the Marxists for doing their revolutionary duty have failed miserably. That is precisely why they now feel the need to intensify their attacks – to cover their bare backsides and justify their total inactivity on the key question of Venezuela, the existence of which they have only just discovered.

Now they are scrambling desperately to climb on the bandwagon but it is too late. So they console themselves and their supporters (who are asking awkward questions) by ranting and raving about Alan Woods' alleged "complicity" with Chavez and chavismo. Well, ladies and gentlemen, please carry on raving. No serious person will pay the slightest attention to you. Just stop wasting the time of people who are engaged in serious work.

The simple fact is that, like the fox in Aesop's fable, our critics are displeased because we have conducted an exemplary solidarity campaign, because we have managed to get the ideas of Marxism across to a very broad audience in Venezuela and internationally, because we are successfully building the forces of Marxism in the Bolivarian movement, in short, because we have been successful. And like the fox, they have no alternative now but to grind their teeth in impotent rage and mutter: "these grapes are sour." To which we reply with Aesop's moral: It is easy to despise what you cannot get.

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