Venezuela: The UNT and factory committees - A Marxist analysis of revolutionary strategy

The question of setting up factory committees has been posed in Venezuela. Because some of those putting forward this idea belong to the reformist wing of the Bolivarian movement, the leadership of the UNT unions instead of promoting them have come out against them. Marxists on the other hand view this as an opportunity to promote genuine workers' control from below.

[Note: This article was written before the nationalization of SIDOR and the sacking of José Rámon Rivero as Minister of Labour. It appeared in a reduced version in El Militante, no. 11, April 2008, the Venezuelan Marxist paper published by the CMR.]

The taking over of the "Los Andes" milk-producing company by the national government has once again put on the agenda the question of workers' committees in the Bolivarian revolution and what should be the attitude of the revolutionaries and the working class towards them.

In his visit to Mérida after having taken over the company and in his speech to the PSUV activists in the Poliedro Hall, Chávez pointed out the following:

"Workers' Committees must be created, socialist committees, in order to transform the factory from inside. The workers must know what is happening in the company, participate in decision-making in the firm". He then concluded saying: "The working class and the people must be the front-line figures of the this social process".

This is not the first time that Chávez has made a call for the working class to put itself in the vanguard of the revolution and this should not be ignored by the revolutionary trade union leaders of the working class. For this reason it is important to have a correct position regarding the workers' committees suggested some time ago by the Minister of Labour, José Ramon Rivero and now again by president Chávez.

The UNT (Unión Nacional de Trabajadores) and the whole revolutionary workers' movement should take a correct stand and, most importantly, should take action to create the workers' committees from below. This should be done both in the occupied factories, in those that are still under the control of the capitalists and in publicly owned firms.

This is fundamental, if the Venezuelan working class is to fulfil its tasks in order to push the revolution towards Socialism. That is to say, the expropriation of the means of production owned by the capitalists, the factories, the big monopolies, the banks and the land. Furthermore, there should be the dismantling of the old state apparatus inherited from the Fourth Republic and its substitution with a state or semi-state which is genuinely revolutionary.

For the Marxists, the working class of Venezuela is the only sector that can organize a revolutionary state as an alternative to the bourgeois state. This is one of the fundamental points that separates the Marxists from the other tendencies on the left.

The peasants, the "popular sectors" [urban poor], the petit-bourgeoisie, in themselves cannot organize stable structures. What is necessary is the participation of the working class in an organized manner, with its own organs, its national power structures to coordinate (not against or without consulting them) with the "popular sectors", the peasants and the middle layers. In this way it would be possible to build the revolutionary state, which the Bolivarian revolution requires urgently.

This is the main reason why the communal councils based on the communities, in spite of all the efforts and advances that have been made and in spite of all the economic resources given to them from the Venezuelan state, have been unable to organize an alternative to the bourgeois state throughout these years of revolution.

The communities, i.e. the poor neighbourhoods, in Venezuela, have a very heterogeneous social composition where decomposition is a dominant feature. Of course there are very committed and militant revolutionaries to be found among this layer, but unfortunately it is not possible to build a revolutionary state based exclusively on the communities.

The only way is for the working class to build its own organs of power and that these should be coordinated with the communal councils; not against them or independently of them but with links and coordination. In the same way that the communities are not able to organize the new state in and of themselves, the working class is equally incapable of taking power itself if it is not able to win the ear, the support and solidarity of the "popular sectors". For that end, it is fundamental that the working class adds to its demands those of the communities and in all its struggles tries to link up with these layers that probably constitute some 50% of the Venezuelan population.

The proposal of workers' councils

The first workers' councils were set up in the INVEVAL factory and during the struggle of Sanitarios Maracay and at the INAF plant in Cagua on the initiative of the CMR and FRETECO in Venezuela. Unfortunately, no other political organization in Venezuela in no other struggle, has initiated the setting up of these organs of workers' control in production as genuine organs of democratic workers' control of production and management of any company.

Later, in January 2007, the idea of workers' councils was suggested verbally by the Minister of Labour, José Ramon Rivero, when he took office. So far, no law or decree has been approved in that would allow for the implementation of such bodies, nor anything that can indicate what their purpose in a factory would be. The defeat in the December 2nd referendum blocked an amendment of the text that presented the workers' councils as organs of popular power. Among other things, a victory for that reform would have signified an enormous impulse for the setting up of workers' councils.

From the trade union tendency to which the Minister of Labour is aligned to, the FSBT (Fuerza Socialista Bolivariana de Trabajadores), no concrete steps have been forthcoming since then, to implement the workers' councils, neither in the legislative field nor in the struggles from below in the factories. This does not come as a big surprise, as the leadership of the FSBT is the trade union sector which is most tied to the reformist bureaucracy within the Bolivarian revolution.

The proposal of the Minister of Labour was rejected by the other tendencies in the trade-union movement, concretely by Orlando Chirino, one of the most well known leaders of the UNT. Not only did Chirino oppose workers' councils, he also opposed the constitutional reform. This was a serious mistake. The fundamental argument of Chirino for opposing the workers' councils was, that these were and are a manoeuvre on the part of the reformist bureaucracy of the government to subordinate and weaken the trade-union movement in Venezuela and destroy the UNT.

"It would be very important if the trade union organizations could come to agreements with the workers' committees, but the guidelines for these will be put forward by the state. The workers' committees must be autonomous and what we are seeing is that they are trying to control the workers and their trade-union organizations... What I will say to you openly is, that the intention is to minimize the actions of the trade union movement. Unfortunately, we see today a dangerous conduct of the government who acts through the Ministry of Labour against the freedom of the trade-unions and against their autonomy." (Interview with Orlando Chirinos, National coordinator of the Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (Unete), El Universal, October 14, 2007).

The conflict between Chirino and the right wing of the FSBT and the Minister of Labour is well known. The divisions between Chirino, Marcela Máspero and the FSBT have paralysed the UNT as a national organization and in turn this has led to the paralysis of the working class, thus rendering it incapable of fulfilling its revolutionary tasks.

Faced with this situation, many workers are confused. This is even more the case when sectors of the FSBT put forward precisely the position that the trade-unions are outdated institutions invented by the capitalists and that only workers' committees should be set up.

This is a reactionary approach because the trade unions are tools in the workers' struggle for the defence of their interests, created through enormous sacrifice. If it is possible, that under certain conditions the leadership of the trade unions can become corrupt and adopt a pro-boss stance, it is due to an approach that sees the workers' struggle from a purely trade unionist point of view, only highlighting the day-to-day struggles and avoiding linking it the struggle for socialism and against capitalism. However, this is not the responsibility of the trade unions in themselves, nor of the workers who are in them, but of the reformist and pro-boss trade union leaders that the working class in some moments are subjected to.

Marxists defend the trade unions and fight inside them for a militant and revolutionary policy. But we do not stop at that, we also stress that the tasks of the trade unions in a revolution must go further and they must transform themselves into instruments for the taking of power on the part of the workers. That is the central task of the UNT.

With this aim in mind, it is fundamental that the workers of the revolutionary trade unions put forward a correct position on the question of workers' committees. What should the attitude of Venezuelan trade unionists be towards the workers' committees? Should we applaud or oppose them? Is it a question of trade unions versus workers' committees? The fact is that the workers' committees are the foundations upon which the alternative revolutionary state can be built.

Experience of the 1917 Russian revolution and the German revolution of 1923

Historically speaking, the workers' committees come on the scene when the class struggle has reached such a point that it questions property forms and capitalist control over the factories. The workers start to occupy the factories and implement workers' control of production. The emergence of workers' committees shows the profound character of the revolutionary crisis and the possibility of organizing the working class as the ruling class with its own organs of power. Many times in history, the workers' committees have been the foundations stones upon which the revolutionary state has been built.

The experience of the 1917 Russian revolution is significant in this respect. The workers' Soviets (committees) emerged as extended strike committees that coordinated the different factories and later spread throughout the country, to the workers' neighbourhoods and to whole regions. As part of the organs of workers' control there were also the factory committees that maintained workers' control over production thus becoming the workers' leadership in the factory, elected by the workers themselves.

The Soviets were organs of the embryonic workers' state. However, the Bolsheviks did not have any fetish about the forms of the Soviets. In one instance they also thought that the factory committees and even the trade unions could play this role.

The Bolsheviks in 1917 did not simply abstain from opposing the factory committees; they actually began to set them up throughout the whole country. Lenin in July 1917 ‑ after the "July days" in which the reformist bureaucracy went on to suppress the Bolsheviks and the workers and faced with the resistance of the reformist bureaucracy in the soviets ‑ proposed that the working class take power through the factory committees instead of the soviets.

As Trotsky points out in the History of the Russian Revolution (Chapter 36, The Bolsheviks and the Soviets):

"The question, what mass organizations were to serve the party for leadership in the insurrection, did not permit an a priori, much less a categorical, answer. The instruments of the insurrection might have been the factory committees and trade unions, already under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, and at the same time in individual cases certain soviets that had broken free from the yoke of the Compromisers. Lenin, for example, said to Ordzhonikidze: "We must swing over the center of gravity to the factory and shop committees. The factory and shop committees must become the organs of insurrection. (...)

"The last days of August brought another abrupt shift in the correlation of forces, but this time from right to left. The masses once called into the fight had no difficulty in re-establishing the soviets in the position which they had occupied before the July crisis. Henceforth the fate of the soviets was in their own hands. The power could be seized by them without a struggle."

In the German revolution of 1923, the role of the factory committees was fundamental. This revolution was unfortunately lost, because of the errors of the leadership of the German Communist Party, advised by the Bolshevik leaders Zinoviev and Stalin.

The reasons for this defeat are to be dealt with in another article. But among these reasons it is necessary to highlight the inability of the German CP leadership to understand the revolutionary role of the factory committees and their limited understanding that power could only be taken through the soviets.

As Trotsky wrote in his texts about "The lessons of October", written in 1924:

"In our country, both in 1905 and in 1917, the soviets of workers' deputies grew out of the movement itself as its natural organizational form at a certain stage of the struggle. But the young European parties, who have more or less accepted soviets as a "doctrine" and "principle," always run the danger of treating soviets as a fetish, as some self-sufficing factor in a revolution. Yet, in spite of the enormous advantages of soviets as the organs of struggle for power, there may well be cases where the insurrection may unfold on the basis of other forms of organization (factory committees, trade unions, etc.) and soviets may spring up only during the insurrection itself, or even after it has achieved victory, as organs of state power.

"Most highly instructive from this standpoint is the struggle which Lenin launched after the July days against the fetishism of the organizational form of soviets. In proportion as the SRs and Menshivik soviets became, in July, organizations openly driving the soldiers into an offensive and crushing the Bolsheviks, to that extent the revolutionary movement of the proletarian masses was obliged and compelled to seek new paths and channels. Lenin indicated the factory committees as the organizations of the struggle for power. (See, for instance, the reminiscences of Comrade Ordzhonikidze.) It is very likely that the movement would have proceeded on those lines if it had not been for the Kornilov uprising, which forced the conciliationist soviets to defend themselves and made it possible for the Bolsheviks to imbue them with a new revolutionary vigor, binding them closely to the masses through the left, i.e., Bolshevik wing.

"This question is of enormous international importance, as was shown by the recent German experience. It was in Germany that soviets were several times created as organs of insurrection without an insurrection taking place - and as organs of state power - without any power. This led to the following: in 1923, the movement of broad proletarian and semi-proletarian masses began to crystallize around the factory committees, which in the main fulfilled all the functions assumed by our own soviets in the period preceding the direct struggle for power. Yet, during August and September 1923, several comrades advanced the proposal that we should proceed to the immediate creation of soviets in Germany. After a long and heated discussion this proposal was rejected, and rightly so. In view of the fact that the factory committees had already become in action the rallying centers of the revolutionary masses, soviets would only have been a parallel form of organization, without any real content, during the preparatory stage. They could have only distracted attention from the material targets of the insurrection (army, police, armed bands, railways, etc.) by fixing it on a self-contained organizational form." (Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October, Chapter 8)

Trotsky insists in this work above all on the idea that it is impermissible to have a fetish with the Soviets, that flexibility is needed and that the organs with which the working class can take power can be not only the Soviets but also the trade unions and the factory committees.

In Venezuela, the main lesson to be drawn from this past experience is that the factory committees, as well as the trade-unions, in other revolutions played the role of organs of the new workers' state and even as organs for the taking of power. And for this reason, they can also play a key revolutionary role in Venezuela.

Workers of Venezuela must occupy and take control of the factories

The proposal of the Minister of Labour, and now president Chávez, to form workers' committees should be taken up by the whole of the revolutionary workers' and trade union movement and should be put into practice. If the factory committees are spread throughout Venezuela, or at least to the most important factories, these would be the basis, together with the trade-unions, for the future revolutionary state that the revolution requires.

There is no contradiction between the trade unions and the workers' or factory committees. On the contrary, they complement each other. The experience of the struggle of the Sanitarios Maracay workers is very relevant in this respect. While the factory was occupied, it was the executive of the trade union plus a group of workers elected in the workers' assembly that made up the Factory Committee. This was a more flexible and broader structure than the trade union. The most important leaders of the trade union were also the leaders of the factory committee. The members of the factory committee were also elected in the assembly by the workers themselves and were subject to the right of recall.

In what other country of the world does the president of a government stress the need to build workers' committees? In none, and this is precisely because the workers' committees, or factory committees, immediately put the question of workers' control on the agenda. This obviously enters into  contradiction with bourgeois property of the means of production and with the existence of the bourgeois state.

That is why the Venezuelan revolutionary workers' movement should seize this initiative and develop it from below instead of waiting for the government to implement it. The reformist sectors of the FSBT, with the Minister of Labour at the forefront, may want to put forward these workers' committees in a bureaucratic fashion with the objective of building their own base among the workers and using this to fight against the revolutionary trade unions and especially in their struggles against other tendencies within the UNT.

We should remain vigilant and resist each attempt to transform the workers' committees into tools of the reformist bureaucracy collaborating with the bosses against the trade union movement. But it would be an act of sheer stupidity on the part of the workers' movement if we did not take up this proposal and put it into practice, neither in a bureaucratic manner nor for sectarian purposes, but to set up organizational structures that can become the building blacks for workers' control and the embryo of the workers' state.

The Spanish Revolution (1931-1937) and the Bolivarian Revolution

Taking this into account, the experience of Venezuela is in many ways similar to that of the Spanish Revolution at one specific moment. In 1931 the reformist leader of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party) Largo Caballero began to call for the building of workers' committees in the factories.

This was a bureaucratic proposal which had the aim of controlling the workers' movement. However, the proposal of Trotsky and the Spanish Communists was not to call for sabotage against these committees and denounce it as a manoeuvre of the reformist bureaucracy, but on the contrary it was to take up the proposals of Caballero and put them into practice in a revolutionary manner.

In his letter to Andrés Nin, a Spanish revolutionary, "The Soviets and the problem of Balkanisation", Trotsky pointed out the following:

"To renounce workers' control merely because the reformists are for it - in words - would be an enormous stupidity. On the contrary, it is precisely for this reason that we should seize upon this slogan all the more eagerly and compel the reformist workers to put it into practice by means of a united front with us; and on the basis of this experience to push them into opposition to Caballero and other fakers.

"We succeeded in creating Soviets in Russia only because the demand for them was raised, together with us, by the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries, although, to be sure, they had different aims in mind. We cannot create any Soviets in Spain precisely because neither the Socialists nor the syndicalists want Soviets. This means that the united front and the organizational unity with the majority of the working class cannot be created under this slogan.

"But here is Caballero himself, forced to it by the pressure of the masses, seizing upon the slogan of workers' control and thereby opening wide the doors for the united front policy and to forging an organization that embraces the majority of the working class. We must seize hold of this with both hands.

"Certainly, Caballero will try to transform workers' control into the control of the capitalists over the workers. But that question already pertains to another domain, that of the relationship of forces within the working class. If we succeed in creating factory committees all over the country, then in this revolutionary epoch that we are witnessing, Messrs Caballero and Co. will have lost the decisive battle." (On The Slogan of Soviets, Leon Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution)

These words apply perfectly to the Venezuelan revolution today and indicate what the attitude of the trade unions should be towards the workers' committees. The revolutionary trade unionists in the UNT should seize the initiative with both hands and build the workers' committees in all enterprises around the country in order to introduce workers' control of production in those companies.

They should launch a national campaign demanding that the Chávez government nationalize all those companies that are in crisis, have been closed down, occupied or are in dispute and also those that are sabotaging the economy and thereby generating shortages of products. In this respect, the recent nationalization of the cement industry should be highlighted as an example to be followed with more nationalisations.

Mass assemblies and public meetings should be called wherever possible in the factories, where committees should be set up and resolutions approved. Regional days of action should be organised in support of the setting up of workers' committees, where the central tasks of the working class in the construction of Socialism and its role in the revolution should be discussed. These should also be used as platforms from which to launch workers' control and prepare a day of occupations of factories that are sabotaging the revolution or exploiting their workers.

The UNT does not need to wait for the national government to expropriate those factories. The trade unions that belong to the UNT should go ahead, occupy them and start up production: the factories should be under the control of the workers and the land under the control of the peasants.

This is the only way to build socialism in Venezuela. All this, which should be carried out in the private sector, is equally applicable to the public sector companies where the state bureaucracy is misusing and abusing the resources that rightly belong to all Venezuelans and where workers' control is more necessary than ever before.

The tasks of the workers' committees is to conduct social control, struggle against sabotage and hording, control production in each company, open the accounts of the company, see what the surplus of the company is used for and train the workers in the management and control of the factories; all this from the perspective of the workers taking control of the companies and removing the capitalists and the bureaucrats.

By extending the workers' committees, coordinating and building them based on the UNT trade unions in each factory, city or region, working together with the communal councils, it would be possible to generate the structures for a new revolutionary state, the workers' state that together with the organized communities would be able to replace the state inherited from the Fourth Republic with its bureaucracy that poses a mortal threat to the Venezuelan revolution. This is the only way to build socialism in Venezuela.

See also: