Marxists and the Venezuelan Revolution
"Whoever expects to see a 'pure' social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is" (Lenin)
There are Marxists of all kinds: some have read a lot, some not so much. Some have taken the trouble to penetrate the essence of the Marxist method, to make a careful study of dialectics, while others have merely skated over the surface, limiting themselves to a kind of vulgar economic determinism that may be useful as agitation but is really quite alien to Marxism.
Reading the writings of such "Marxism" one always has the impression of entering into the dark basement of a public library that has remained closed for many years. It is full of bits of undigested knowledge, but airless, dusty and sterile. This is Marxism stripped of dialectics – that is, stripped of its revolutionary soul. This kind of "Marxism" is essentially quite compatible with reformism and passivity, since, for all its radical terminology, it never leaves the armchair and the slippers.
This deviation is particularly common in Britain, where it has a very long lineage going back to Hyndeman. In part, this reflects the British tradition of narrow empiricism and aversion for broad theoretical generalizations, in part also the pressure of reformist ideas and Labour Movement routinism, which is never able to see the wood for the trees.
A revolutionary must have a "feel" for the movement of the masses and have revolution in their soul. By contrast, bookish pedants see the historical process as a question of "objective forces" that determine everything in advance. Such people are not revolutionaries but eternal observers whose standpoint has far more in common with Calvin's notion of predestination than the revolutionary dialectic of Marxism.
The idea of predestination played a progressive role in the early stages of the bourgeois revolution in Holland and England in the 16th and 17th centuries, but is nowadays hopelessly antiquated. Marxist dialectics leaves plenty of room for the creative role of men and women in the historical process. But it also explains that men and women are never completely free of the objective circumstances of the historical period in which they live.
A revolutionary must have an understanding of the dialectical method that takes its starting point, not from abstract definitions and axioms, but from living reality, in all its concreteness, richness and contradictions. He or she must take the movement of the masses as it is, as it has historically developed, and strive by all means to enter into contact with it, to establish a dialogue with it, and to fertilise it with the ideas of Marxism.
A revolutionary who was not prepared to follow the masses through this contradictory process but instead tried to preach to them from the sidelines would not be a revolutionary at all but only a pitiful formalist. A mechanical and doctrinaire attitude to the mass movement would rule out any possibility of influencing it.
The subjective factor
Marxism has never denied the role of the individual in history, and individuals or groups of individuals can play an absolutely decisive role at certain junctures of the historical process. What Marx did explain – and in this he was absolutely correct – was that in the last analysis the viability of a given socio-economic system depends on its ability to develop the productive forces. The general crisis of world capitalism at the present time at bottom reflects the inability of capitalism to develop the productive forces to the extent that it did in the past.
This undeniable fact provides the broad historical context on which the great drama of world politics is being played out. It determines the general processes absolutely and establishes its limits. But within these general processes there can be all kinds of crosscurrents, ebbs and flows, in which the character of individuals can and does play a decisive role. In fact, it is the weakness of the subjective factor on a world scale that is having a decisive effect, delaying and distorting the movement in the direction of socialist revolution.
The most important factor in the present situation is the absence of a strong and authoritative Marxist leadership on a world scale. The tendency of genuine Marxism has been thrown back for decades and at present represents a small minority. It cannot yet lead the masses to victory. But the problems of the masses are excruciating. They will not wait until we are ready to lead them. They will try by all means to change society, to strive to find a way out of the impasse. This is particularly true of the ex-colonial countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, where there is no possibility of carrying society forward on a capitalist basis.
In the absence of a mass Marxist tendency all sorts of peculiar variants are possible – in fact they are inevitable. A creative approach is necessary to understand the nature of such developments, distinguishing at every stage what is progressive and what is reactionary.
For the sectarian mentality, a revolution must conform to a pre-established scheme: for instance it must be led by a Marxist party. Now we are far from disputing the vital importance of the revolutionary party and leadership in the revolution. But in order to build such a party, it is necessary to have a realistic appraisal of the stage the movement has reached, and our role within it. We will return to this point later.
The problem with this approach is that it deals, not with living processes, but with abstract formulae, definitions and universal norms. That is to say, it is idealist and not materialist, metaphysical and not dialectical. It establishes an ideal norm of what a revolution is, and systematically rejects anything that does not conform to this norm. In the mind of an idealist, this is perfect. But such ideal perfection frequently clashes with reality, as we have known ever since Plato.
For the purposes of a definition, we all know what a human being is: it is either male or female, has two eyes, two legs, and so on and so forth. But in real life, some humans may be born with one eye or one leg, or none, and even the sex of some humans cannot be precisely determined. In fact, departures from the norm are frequently encountered in nature and in everyday life, and we must learn to deal with them or else suffer a great deal of mystification and inconvenience.
The success of the revolution would indeed be guaranteed if there existed a mass Marxist party that could give the necessary guidance to the leading layers of the class, and arm them with a political programme. But the building of such a party cannot be achieved by decree. The revolutionary vanguard can only win the majority by submitting to the test of events and the approval of the masses. It can never be achieved by preaching to the masses from the sidelines. And before we can reach the masses it is first necessary to understand the nature of the mass movement, the stage it is at, the different (contradictory) tendencies within it, and in which direction it is moving. That is to say, a dialectical approach is needed.
The first law of dialectics, however, is absolute objectivity: when approaching a given phenomenon we must not proceed from preconceived ideas or definitions but from a careful examination of the facts – not examples, not digressions but the thing itself. If we are to understand the events in Venezuela, and the role of the movements and individuals in these events, it is necessary to start with the events themselves. A definition in the dialectical sense must be drawn from a careful examination of facts and processes, not imposed upon them from without.
This was the method of Trotsky. In his Preface to the History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky writes:
"The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of a preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author's task."
The above lines represent an excellent example of the dialectical method of analysis. By contrast, formalistic thinkers do not bother their heads with a careful study of facts and processes. They do not have to work hard to discover the laws of motion of a given revolution, because they already know (or imagine that they know) the laws of revolution in general. Thus armed, they do not need to waste time studying the facts. They merely apply their preconceived ideas and definitions to the facts, like a chemist who applies a litmus paper to a fluid. If the paper turns red it is an acid, if it turns blue it is an alkali.
Such a method is simple – childishly simple, in fact, and therefore very suitable for little children. Armed with such potent knowledge, the formalist can decide in advance whether to recognise the events in Venezuela (or any other country on the terrestrial globe) as a revolution or not. From the Olympian Heights, they refuse to give the Venezuelan Revolution a birth certificate. Fortunately, the Revolution does not know about this excommunication and cares even less about it.
What is a revolution?
The weakness of the position of the sects in relation to Venezuela (insofar as they have even bothered to notice it) is that they base themselves on preconceived ideas as to what a revolution "ought to be" while betraying a complete ignorance of what revolution is.
What is a revolution? This self-evident question is rarely asked. But unless we ask and answer it, we shall never be in a position to determine what is now happening in Venezuela – or anywhere else. A revolution, as Trotsky explains in the History of the Russian Revolution, is a situation where the masses begin to take their destiny into their own hands. This is certainly the case in Venezuela now. The awakening of the masses and their active participation in politics is the most decisive feature of the Venezuelan Revolution and the secret of its success.
In the same Preface, Leon Trotsky – who, after all, knew a few things about revolutions – answers in the following way:
"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny." (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Preface, my emphasis)
In normal periods the masses do not participate in politics. The conditions of life under capitalism place insurmountable barriers in their way: the long hours of labour, physical and mental tiredness, etc. Normally, people are content to leave the decisions affecting their lives to someone else: the local councillor, the professional politicians, the trade union official etc.
However, at certain critical moments, the masses burst onto the scene of history, take their lives and destinies into their hands and become transformed from passive agents into the protagonists of the historical process. One would have to be particularly blind or obtuse not to see that this is precisely the situation that now exists in Venezuela. In recent years, but especially since the attempted coup of April 2002, millions of workers and peasants have been on the move, fighting to change society. If this is not a revolution, then we will never see one. Only the most woodenheaded sectarian could fail to understand this.
It is necessary to understand that the masses, whether in Venezuela or any other country, only learn gradually from their experience. The working class has to go through the experience of the revolution and the social crisis in order to distinguish between the different tendencies, programmes and leaders. It learns by a method of successive approximations. As Trotsky explains:
"The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counterrevolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions." (ibid.)
And he adds:
"Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the r䀀le of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam." (ibid.)
These remarks exactly fit the situation in Venezuela, where the movement of the masses from below constitutes the principal motor-force of the revolution. It is impossible to understand the process by confining oneself to an analysis of the leaders, their class origins, statements and programmes. This is really like the froth on the waves of the ocean, which are only a superficial reflection of the profound currents beneath the surface.
The masses and Chavez
"The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution." (Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution.)
In the absence of a mass revolutionary Marxist party, the forces of revolution have gathered around Chavez and the Bolivarian Movement. Hugo Chavez is the man at the centre of the storm. No matter what one thinks about this man, he has broken the dam and opened the floodgates. He alone has dared to confront the power of the oligarchy and defy the might of American imperialism. Even his declared enemies and critics cannot deny that he has shown colossal courage. And in giving a courageous example he has conjured up tremendous forces that have lain dormant in the depths of Venezuelan society for generations. This is a fact of tremendous importance.
For the first time in the almost 200 years history of Venezuela the masses feel that the government is in the hands of people who wish to defend their interests. In the past the government was always an alien power standing against them. They do not want to see the return of the old corrupt parties. The masses, the poor shanty town dwellers, the unemployed, the workers, the peasants, the Indians, the blacks, have been stirred out of their apathy and brought to their feet. They have discovered a new meaning in life, a new sense of human dignity, a new hope. Overnight, they have become Chavistas, although they do not understand very well what this means.
Maybe the masses have only the vaguest idea of what they really want, but they have a very clear idea of what they do not want. They do not want a return to the old order, the old parties and the old bourgeois leaders. They have had a taste of what it means to be free and they do not wish to return to the old slavery. With every fibre of their being, they yearn for a fundamental change in the conditions of their lives. For them, this is what Chavismo means. And this great dream of a change in their lives is summed up in their minds in one man – Hugo Chavez.
Many people are surprised with the fervour – almost a religious fervour – with which the masses regard their President. They would be ready to suffer hunger and poverty, to sacrifice all their possessions, to risk their lives (as they did two years ago) for him. This represents a tremendous power and explains how it is that Chavez has been able to defeat all attempts to overthrow him. The real secret of his success lies not within himself but in the masses, and it is the strength of the masses that determines the whole course of the Revolution and is its fundamental motor force.
Chavez's enemies on the right cannot understand the reason for this. They cannot understand it because they are organically incapable of understanding the dynamics of the revolution itself. The ruling class and its intellectual prostitutes can never accept that the masses have a mind and personality of their own, that they are a tremendously creative force that is capable not only of changing society but also of administering it. They can never admit such a thing because to do so would be to admit their own bankruptcy and confess that they are not a necessary and indispensable social agent endowed with a God-given right to rule, but a superfluous and parasitic class and a reactionary obstacle to progress.
Sectarians incapable of understanding
But it is not only the bourgeois enemies of the Revolution who display a complete incapacity to understand the Venezuelan Revolution. Many on the Left (including so-called Marxists) have shown a similar inability to understand what is happening. Having proclaimed themselves the Leaders of the working class, they are mortified by the spectacle of the masses' enthusiastic support for Chavez and are mystified by it. They grumble in corners, mumbling something about "populism", but show their complete inability to connect with the real movement of the masses. But then, that is the main feature of sectarians everywhere.
What none of these ladies and gentlemen have understood is the dialectical relation between Chavez and the masses. They have in common a formalistic and mechanistic approach to the revolution. They do not see it as a living process, full of contradictions and irregularities. It does not conform to their preconceived schemes of how a revolution ought to be, and therefore they turn their backs on it in disgust. They behave like the first European who saw a giraffe and exclaimed: "I don't believe it!"
Unfortunately for our formalistic friends, the revolution does not develop smoothly, it does not go according to any preconceived plan, it does not perform like well-rehearsed orchestra following the conductor's baton. It follows its own rules and obeys its internal laws, laws that do not come from a revolutionary cookbook, but which are rooted in the contradictions of society that gradually work themselves out through the collective action of the masses themselves who do not learn from textbooks but through experience of the struggle and a painful process of trial and error.
"But Chavez is a bourgeois", they protest. These people always think in simplistic terms: black or white, yes or no, bourgeois or proletarian. Old Engels had this kind of formalistic mentality in mind when he quoted from the Bible: "Let thy communication be: Yea, yea, nay, nay, for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil." Such demands for a clear-cut definition appear at first sight to be reasonable and wise. But it is not possible in all circumstances to demand clear-cut definitions.
Even as a sociological definition, the above characterisation is incorrect. The social background from which Hugo Chavez comes is not the bourgeoisie but rather the middle class. He calls himself a peasant. However, this does not exhaust the question from a Marxist point of view. The middle class is not a homogeneous class. In its upper layers, the wealthy lawyers, doctors and university professors, it stands close to the bourgeoisie and serves it. In its lower layers, the small shopkeepers, small peasants, the lower ranks of the intellectuals, it stands close to the working class and, under certain circumstances, can come over to the side of the socialist revolution.
However, the class origin of the leaders also is not conclusive when deciding the class nature of a particular party or movement. What ultimately determines the class nature of a political movement is its programme and policies, and its class basis. We can broadly describe the programme and policies of the Bolivarian Movement as those of petty bourgeois revolutionary democracy. As such, it does not go beyond the limits of a very advanced bourgeois democracy. The Revolution has carried out an ambitious programme of reforms in the interests of the masses, but has not yet abolished capitalism. This constitutes its major weakness and the greatest threat to its future.
The question of the state
"But the state is still bourgeois!" our formalistic friends insist. Insofar as the oligarchy has not yet been expropriated, insofar as a large part of the economic power remains in its hands, then Venezuela remains capitalist and we must define the class nature of the state accordingly. Moreover, a large part of the old bureaucracy remains in place: the judiciary has been inherited from before, the Metropolitan Police acts as a state within the state, the loyalty of sections of the middle officers is unclear. This means that a qualitative change has not yet taken place, and therefore the present situation can yet be reversed. However, this cannot be done without a ferocious conflict and civil war.
However, the general definition of the state as a bourgeois state tells us nothing about real class balance of forces or the concrete reality of the state, or way in which the situation is moving. In reality, the state in Venezuela is no longer controlled by the bourgeoisie. That is why the oligarchy is obliged to resort to extra-legal and extra-parliamentary methods to regain control. The majority of the armed forces, including an important section of the officers, support the Revolution. This creates enormous problems for the counterrevolution and potentially favourable conditions for those who wish to carry the revolution through to the end.
Earlier we asked what is a revolution? It is necessary also to ask the question: what is the state? This question was answered long ago by Lenin (following Engels) when he said that the state, in the last analysis, is armed bodies of men – the army, the police etc. In normal periods the state is controlled by the ruling class. But in exceptional periods, when the class struggle reaches a peak of intensity, the state can acquire a large degree of independence, lifting itself above society. That is the position now in Venezuela.
The final argument of the sectarians refers to the armed forces. "We must not have anything to do with army officers." This is really not an argument at all but only a stupid prejudice. The idea that it is not possible to win over the army to the side of Revolution is absurd. If this were true, there could never have been a single revolution in the whole of history. But the army is made up of men and women in uniform and men and women can be influenced by the events in society. (To have to make such comments is rather embarrassing, but it seems that one can take nothing for granted nowadays).
In every great revolution in history, the army is affected by the movement of the masses. It tends to split on class lines. If that were not the case, revolution in general would be impossible. The revolutionary ferment affects not only the soldiers and NCOs but part of the officers. Under especially favourable circumstances, a large part of the officers can be affected and refuse to fight for the old regime or even pass over to the side of the Revolution, like Tukhachevsky, who was a tsarist officer.
Moreover, it has happened more than once that a revolutionary movement first started at the top, with a revolt of a section of the officers, and then spread to the masses. This is particularly the case where the old regime was exposed as utterly corrupt and bankrupt. The history of Spain in the 19th century is full of such events, which were known as pronunciamientos, and which frequently opened the floodgates of revolution. However, there are more recent examples of the same process.
The Portuguese Revolution
The idea that the Bolivarian Revolution is absolutely unique is not correct. Of course, it has specific peculiarities, but it is far from being unique. As a matter of fact, every revolution has features that are common to all revolutions. If that were not the case, it would be impossible to learn anything useful from the study of past revolutions – but this is very far from the case. Exactly 30 years ago in Portugal we saw a remarkably similar process to the one in Venezuela at the present time.
After more than half a century of fascist rule, the people of Portugal overthrew the hated Caetano dictatorship and entered the road of revolution. How did this begin? It began as a coup carried out by left wing army officers. This is in complete contradiction to the normal situation, where the army officers almost always played a counterrevolutionary role. Here the opposite was the case. Ted Grant wrote in 1975:
"The real peculiarity of the Portuguese Revolution in comparison with any revolution of the past is the involvement of the mass of the lower and middle officers - and even some of the generals and admirals - in the revolution.
"If the powers of the state as Marx and Lenin have explained reduces itself to the control of armed bodies of men, then the decay of the Portuguese regime is shown in a naked form. The bourgeoisie staked all on the ultimate weapon of a ferocious and totalitarian repression of the masses. Over two generations, witnessing its consequences, the bourgeoisie lost its support also in the middle class and by contagion even in the greater part of the officer caste. The senseless war in Africa played its part but that is not the entire explanation. The even more lunatic massacre during the 1914-18 war did not lead the [Russian] officer caste in its overwhelming majority to abandon Czarism. They did not hesitate to go over to the counterrevolution and support wars of intervention against their own country.
"In 1918 the German revolution was opposed by the bulk of the officer caste. The counterrevolution of Hitler was supported by the overwhelming majority of the officers.
"In the Spanish revolution of 1931-37, 99% of the officer caste went over to Franco. And to come nearer home, in 1926 the big majority of the officer caste supported Salazar.
"There has been a titanic swing of the political pendulum to the left. During the past three decades the petty bourgeoisie have swung left too - as the student movement demonstrates - and in Portugal the impasse of capitalism and the hatred of the cliques of monopoly capital, who coined money out of the blood and suffering of the people and the soldiers, has been reflected in the isolation of the very rich circles. They supported and benefited to the last moment from the totalitarian or authoritarian regime. The hatred of these odious parasites extended to layers of the officer caste. This is an indication that capitalism has worn out its historic mission and is becoming further and further a fetter on production. Thus in Portugal even the general staff was split as the episode of the unhappy Spinola demonstrates."
These lines could have been written yesterday – in relation to the Venezuelan Revolution. The Marxist tendency explained these phenomena decades ago, but they remain a closed book to all sectarians and formalists, who are therefore quite unable to understand the Venezuelan Revolution, let alone intervene in it. They are blinded by their own formalistic method that prevents them from seeing what is going on under their noses. They constantly refer to definitions and ready-made quotations from the Marxist classics ("we must smash the old state" etc.), which in their hands become transformed from scientific statements into empty clichés or religious incantations. Instead of helping us to understand the real process, they act as a barrier to understanding.
In his 1975 document on the Portuguese Revolution, Ted Grant wrote:
"Marx had written that in the heavy and apparently obscure writings of Hegel could be seen the revolution at a certain stage in history. Now the inventive genius of history had presented us with the spectacle of the revolution moving through the vehicle of military generals and admirals! This is because capitalism had exhausted itself in Portugal - a country semi-colonial and semi-imperialist - with no way forward after the loss of empire under capitalism. At the same time the road of open bourgeois military dictatorship has been utterly discredited with even sections of the military caste as the result of the 50 year experience of dictatorship.
"But the main reason for the enormous role of the military has been the paralysis of the workers organisations by the lack of a genuine Marxist party and Marxist leadership. In reality from the beginning of the revolution - real power has been in the hands of the workers and soldiers - the MFA has filled the vacuum caused by the failure of leadership of the SP and CP organisations."
Nature abhors a vacuum, it is said, and the same is true of society and politics. In the absence of a mass revolutionary Marxist party, other tendencies can and will fill the political vacuum under certain concrete conditions. But once the officers in Portugal had begun the process, once the floodgates were opened, the masses and the working class poured through them and set their stamp on the revolution. All the conditions existed for a peaceful revolution in Portugal, especially after the defeat of the reactionary coup of general Spinola in March 1975. This was very similar to the coup of 11th April in Venezuela, and it ended in the same way, as Ted explains:
"When there were mass demonstrations by the workers, the forces of the counter-coup melted away. The paratroopers and commandos are always the most conservative force in the Army, composed usually of the most adventurous and wild elements of the population, and usually an elite force of crack troops, the most reliable and the last to crack like the Cossacks in Russia. Now the paratroops assured the demonstrators 'we are no Fascists.' They fraternised with the workers and the troops of the Artillery Regiment. Some gave away their rifles to demonstrators as proof of their good faith.
"Within hours of the coup the air base had been taken over. Spinola and many of the clique of officers supporting him fled to Spain. The coup fizzled out. It could be reckoned in minutes rather than days. It is perhaps the most ludicrous and comic attempt at counterrevolution in history. But it was a fiasco precisely because of the red hot atmosphere of revolution which affected not only the workers and peasants but practically the entire rank and file of the Armed Forces. There was not a single regiment in all Portugal which was willing to be used for the purpose of the counterrevolution."
Again, the same lines would apply exactly to Venezuela two years ago. One only has to change the names. As in Portugal, it would have been possible to carry out a peaceful transformation of society after the collapse of the coup. But this was not done, and a highly favourable opportunity was wasted. This fact, in itself, shows the need for a consistent revolutionary leadership with a clear strategy and line. Such errors will be paid for in the future and the bill will not be cheap.
Our sectarian friends will cry triumphantly: "This proves why we cannot trust the officers!" But it is not a question of trust. That is a moral category, not a scientific one. What is decisive is not the moral character of the leaders but the programme and policies. Many of the officers in Portugal were very honest men who sincerely sided with the masses. Many of them even wanted to carry through a profound social transformation in Portugal, but they did not know how to carry it out.
The real responsibility for the failure of the Portuguese revolution lies, not with the left wing army officers, but with the reformist policies of the leaders of the Communist and Socialist Parties who between them wrecked the Revolution. In passing we must add that the ultra left pseudo-Marxist sects also played a lamentable role and were incapable of providing an alternative for the workers and the radicalised officers who were, in fact, looking for one.
Crisis of capitalism
The reason why such developments can take place is the organic crisis of capitalism on a world scale. Twenty nine years ago Ted Grant wrote:
"One of the key factors in the development of revolution is the demoralisation of the ruling class itself. Now in the decisive countries of capitalism, splits and fissures are opening up in the ruling class. They look with dread to the processes taking place in Europe and the World. The most powerful of all, the United States capitalists, who looked towards a century of world domination, and being the policeman of the colonial and capitalist countries, are as demoralised as the rest."
These lines are perfectly applicable to the present situation.
The world situation is characterised by a general turbulence. Far more than in 1974, there has been an accumulation of deep contradictions. This is certainly a period of upheavals, sharp changes and sudden turns in all continents and all countries. The capitalists are finding it extremely difficult to pull the world economy out of recession. Only the United States has experienced some kind of growth, and this is extremely fragile and based on consumer spending, credit and unprecedented debt.
On a world scale the capitalist system is in a deep crisis. There are many symptoms – wars, terrorism, political, social and diplomatic instability - but these are all manifestations of the central crisis. The apologists of Capital try to present this as a conjunctural crisis, a minor adjustment or "correction". It is no such thing. The convulsions we see everywhere are a reflection of the impasse that capitalism is in. At bottom, this expresses the revolt of the productive forces against the twin barriers of private ownership and the nation state.
The crisis expresses itself with special force in the former colonial countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. They are all experiencing unprecedented convulsions – economic, financial, social and political. There is not a single stable bourgeois regime in the whole of Latin America.
If there existed powerful Marxist parties, the workers of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, could have taken power easily in the last period. But no such parties exist. To the degeneration of the Second and Third Internationals, we must also add the total incapacity of those sectarian organizations that lay claim to the banner of Trotskyism, which have made all kinds of errors of both an opportunist and ultra-left character, and have long since abandoned any right to be taken seriously as a revolutionary force.
In the absence of a strong Marxist party, it was inevitable that the revolution in the underdeveloped capitalist countries would manifest itself in all manner of peculiar ways. This is the result of the delay in the socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. The workers and peasants of Asia, Africa and Latin America cannot wait. They need to seek a solution for their most pressing problems now. And if there is no Marxist party ready to hand, they will have to seek some alternative. There is simply no answer to this logic.
In his theory of the Permanent Revolution, Trotsky explains that, under modern conditions, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution cannot be carried out without the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. The only way to save society from stagnation, hunger and misery was to abolish landlordism and capitalism. It was the impossibility of fully developing the forces of production under capitalism-landlordism which gave the drive to the colonial revolution. On the road of capitalism there was no way forward.
In the absence of a Marxist party, other forces can come to the fore. We saw this in Portugal in 1974-5 when a group of radicalised army officers overthrew the fascist dictator Caetano and opened the floodgates of revolution. In his article, comrade Ted writes:
"Consequently, because the development of productive forces is hampered by the elements of capitalism and big business which are subordinate to, and collaborators of, imperialism, they are swept away. In a twisted version of the permanent revolution this lower officer caste becomes – for a period – the unconscious agent of history, in carrying through the necessary tasks of the statification of the economy."
Of course, this statement flies in the face of the idea, which in certain "Marxist" groups has become a prejudice something like the Arc of the Covenant for orthodox Jews or the doctrine of Papal Infallibility for devout Catholics, to the effect that army officers are inevitably reactionary and that all military coups are right wing. If we set out from these simple propositions, then not only Chavez, but also the leaders of the Portuguese Revolution, stand condemned in advance. Alas! History is not so simple that it can be made to fit into such neat patterns. However, to adapt an old English proverb, simple things please simple minds.
The Portuguese Revolution went very far. In fact, The Times of London even published an editorial article with the title: Capitalism is dead in Portugal. This should have been the case. Under the pressure of the working class the Armed Forces Movement nationalised the banks and insurance companies, which in practice meant nationalising about 80 percent of the economy. Unfortunately, the gains of the Revolution were undermined by the leaders of the Socialist and Communist Parties, and the whole situation was lost.
Now we are seeing a similar phenomenon in Venezuela. For generations, the people of Venezuela were misruled by bourgeois parties that represented the interests of the oligarchy and imperialism. Then in 1996 they found they had an alterantive in the shape of a new political movement – the Bolivarian Movement formed by Hugo Chavez. Chavez's programme was a modest one: against corruption, for reforms etc. But it immediately brought him into conflict with the oligarchy and imperialism.
What we are witnessing in Venezuela is a peculiar variant of the theory of the Permanent Revolution. It is impossible to consolidate the gains of the Revolution within the limits of the capitalist system. Sooner or later, the choice will have to be made: either the Revolution liquidates the economic power of the oligarchy, expropriates the bankers and capitalists and moves in the direction of socialism, or the oligarchy and imperialism will liquidate the Revolution.
Chavez and the masses
In a situation when the old order is in a deep crisis, when there is clearly no way out except a fundamental change, but where there is no mass revolutionary party, all kinds of peculiar variants are possible. Under such circumstances, a revolutionary ferment can reach the most unexpected quarters. We have already pointed out that to characterise Hugo Chavez as a bourgeois is sociologically inexact. But even if it were true, it would not automatically rule out an evolution in the direction of socialist revolution and a proletarian policy. Let us again call the founder of scientific socialism to our aid. In the Communist Manifesto Marx writes the following:
"Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole." (Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Bourgeois and Proletarians)
How clearly Marx expressed himself! To anyone who has really absorbed the method of Marx, as opposed to repeating mechanically a few undigested clichés, what is happening in Venezuela presents no great difficulty. Nor is it the first time that we have witnessed similar phenomena. A few days ago our website reproduced Ted Grant's article The Iberian Revolution Marxism and the Historical Development of The International Situation written in May 1975. It commences with the following words:
"Marxism would be a very simple theory if all that was necessary was a slavish repetition of the ideas of the past. Sectarians and opportunists of all the different cliques and sects ignore the methods and principles which retain their validity and from which invaluable lessons can be drawn from the works of the great teachers. They repeat a few phrases gleaned from the past which they think turn them into brilliant strategists. The works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky form a precious heritage and we must encourage young comrades to study them assiduously. But they do not provide blueprints for the process of history."
The acid test for revolutionaries is their attitude to revolution. The pseudo-Trotskyist sects were completely incapable of orienting and re-orienting to the development of events. They do not understand that without a Marxist party all kinds of things are possible. As Ted correctly said of these self-styled "Trotskyist" cliques: "They have become more and more remote, with not the slightest possibility of becoming mass working class organisations."
The reaction between the objective and subjective factors in history is a highly complex and contradictory one. Only the dialectical method can help us unravel the contradictions of the situation in Venezuela. In the absence of a genuine Marxist current, other trends inevitably make their appearance. And to the degree that the working class does not take the lead, other classes come to the fore. This is really not so difficult to understand!
The relationship between Hugo Chavez and the masses is a very complex and dialectical one. I had occasion to see this for myself when I attended the mass rally on 12 April in the centre of Caracas. There was no mistaken the colossal enthusiasm and devotion they show. But the secret of this is not to be found in Chavez's personality, but in class relations. The masses see themselves reflected in Chavez. They identify themselves with him as the man who first awakened them to political life and who has given voice to their aspirations. They personify the Revolution in him. For them, Hugo Chavez and the Revolution are one and the same thing.
Of course, one thing is the perception of the masses, and another thing is the objective logic of events. In a revolution events move with lightening speed, and the leadership finds it difficult to keep up with the furious pace of events. The pendulum swings steadily to the left for a whole period. All parties, tendencies, programmes and individuals are put to the test. That is why the progress of the revolution is marked by the rise and fall of leaders and parties, in which the more radical wing tends to displace the more moderate elements.
The whip of the counterrevolution
The masses do not go into a revolution with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. The first stages of the revolution are inevitably characterised by a confused and incoherent outlook. There is a sense of euphoria, of triumph, and of an irresistible advance. This is accompanied by the idea of unity, that "we are all together" in a kind of universal march towards freedom and social justice.
However, this is an illusion. The revolution inevitably comes up against the barriers of the existing social order and the existing institutions. This leads to clashes. Every action provokes an equal and opposite reaction – this law holds good for revolutions as well as elementary mechanics. Chavez's victory at the polls did not signify a social revolution, but it completely upset the old order and produced a general social ferment. The oligarchy, realising that they could not bribe or pressurise Chavez, decided to remove him by force. This led directly to the counterrevolutionary coup of 11 April 2002.
Exactly two years ago the counterrevolutionary forces of the Venezuelan oligarchy staged a coup with the backing of right wing army officers. Chavez was arrested and a "democratic dictatorship" was proclaimed. But the masses rose up with their bare hands and overthrew a reactionary government, preparing the way for a new advance of the Revolution. And once again the masses were joined by the revolutionary section of the army. The reaction collapsed like a house of cards in 48 hours.
Marx pointed out that the Revolution needs the whip of the counterrevolution to advance. In Venezuela every counterrevolutionary attempt has served to provoke a colossal movement of the masses that has swept all before it. On each occasion the mood of the masses has become harder, more determined and more militant. The demand for decisive action to finish off the counterrevolutionaries once and for all is becoming louder and more insistent: "Mano dura!" ("Give it to them!") – this is the call from below.
After the defeat of the coup it would have been possible to carry out a socialist revolution swiftly and painlessly. Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost and the reactionaries were allowed to regroup and organise a new attempt in the so-called "strike" (in reality a bosses' lockout) that did serious damage to the economy. The new attempt was defeated by the workers, who seized control of the factories and oil installations and kicked out the reactionaries. Once again the possibility existed of a radical transformation without civil war. And once again the opportunity was lost.
The situation is now completely polarised to the left and the right. A gaping abyss has opened up between antagonistic classes: rich and poor, Chavistas and Escualidos, revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, face each other in a state of permanent hostility. Society lives in a state of constant alarms and agitation. The air is thick with rumours of coups, conspiracies, foreign aggression. The atmosphere is electric, as before a thunderstorm. Sooner or later the storm must break.
The masses are learning quickly in the school of the revolution. They are drawing their conclusions. The main conclusion is that the revolutionary process must be pushed forward, it must confront its enemies and sweep all obstacles aside. This burning desire of the masses, however, is coming up against the resistance of those conservative and reformist elements who are constantly urging caution, and who, in practice, want to put the brakes on the Revolution. The destiny of the Revolution depends on the solution of this contradiction.
The revolution in danger
The Venezuelan Revolution is now faced with a stark choice. The Revolution is surrounded by enemies, both internally and externally, who are striving to overthrow it. In order to defeat the forces of counterrevolution, a clear programme and policy is needed. This can only be provided by the Marxist tendency.
The Venezuelan revolution now stands at the crossroads. The masses have defeated reaction on three occasions in the last two years. But the forces of reaction have not been decisively defeated. The oligarchy continues to control key points of the economy and is constantly intriguing against the Revolution. Washington is actively participating in these counterrevolutionary intrigues. Bush has declared that he will not rest until Chavez is overthrown. Recently an American general stated publicly that Venezuela represents a threat to the United States. All these are danger signals.
US imperialism is bogged down in Iraq. This makes it difficult for it to stage a direct military intervention in Venezuela, even on the scale of its Haitian adventure. But it has many other options. It is attempting to get the Organisation of American States (OAS) to organise a blockade of Venezuela, along the lines of the blockade of Cuba. So far, this has not succeeded. But there is a more urgent threat from neighbouring Colombia.
US imperialism wants to use Colombia as a base for its operations in Latin America. Under the pretext of a "war on drugs", Washington has poured arms, money and "military advisers" into Colombia. This has completely upset the military balance in the region. The monstrous Colombia Plan is a disguise for imperialist intervention on a massive scale. This represents a grave threat to the Venezuelan Revolution. Just before he was ejected by the Spanish people, Aznar sent a large shipment of tanks to Colombia. Since tanks are useless for an anti-guerrilla struggle, this move can only have one interpretation: the tanks are intended for use against a neighbouring state. The name of that state is Venezuela.
In recent months evidence has been accumulating of the activities of Colombian right wing paramilitary groups on Venezuelan soil. These are the notorious fascist death squads that for decades have been killing, torturing and terrorising the population with the covert support of the state and the Colombian armed forces. They are now acting as the hired mercenaries of the CIA. Their objective is the assassination of Hugo Chavez and the organising of violent provocations to justify an armed conflict between Venezuela and Colombia.
We have explained in previous articles that US imperialism is preparing to organise some kind of provocation on the border with Colombia. After the ignominious collapse of its referendum campaign, the internal opposition is in disarray, with one of its components breaking away, accusing the others of plotting another coup, and so on. The revolution is in danger. But as in the Great French Revolution of the 18th century, so in Venezuela today, the external threat can serve to push the Revolution still further.
Class balance of forces
The class balance of forces inside Venezuela is still extremely favourable for carrying out a classical proletarian revolution. What is required is an energetic application of the united front policy. This by no means signifies either the dissolution of the workers' movement or the dissolution of the Marxist wing into a general "people's front." It means only that the working class and its vanguard is duty bound to enter into a fighting agreement with the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, the poor peasants, the urban poor, and all other revolutionary elements in the population for an all-out struggle against imperialism and the oligarchy.
Does such a policy enter into contradiction with the aim of a socialist revolution? Only a hopeless doctrinaire would say so. Such a person has not the slightest idea what the socialist revolution is. Let us refer to Lenin on this subject:
"The socialist revolution is not one single act, not one single battle on a single front; but a whole epoch of intensified class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., battles around all the problems of economics and politics, which can culminate only in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that the struggle for democracy can divert the proletariat from the socialist revolution, or obscure, or overshadow it, etc. On the contrary, just as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy." (The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. ii, Jan-Feb., 1916.)
What do these lines mean? The socialist revolution is unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for the improvement of the position of the working class and the exploited masses. Only in such a struggle can the proletariat gather and weld together the mass forces necessary to carry out the socialist transformation of society. This includes not only the struggle for higher wages, a reduction of the working day, more houses, hospitals and schools etc., but also the struggle for democracy. In the course of this struggle, the working class has the opportunity to win the leadership and to place itself at the head of the nation. Without it, this will never be possible in a thousand years.
In Venezuela the secret of success is the militant unity of the socialist proletariat with the revolutionary democracy – the poor peasants, urban poor, and the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie in general. The enemies of the revolution constantly strive to break this unity. The Marxists strive to maintain it. But this does not signify that we must accept the leadership of the petty bourgeoisie or sink our differences with it. To use the Spanish expression – "juntos pero no revueltos" – "together but not mixed up."
The Bolivarian Movement is not a monolithic Stalinist party, but essentially a broad movement of the masses, in which there are different currents and tendencies. The left wing, reflecting the revolutionary aspirations of the masses, wishes to press forward with the Revolution, overcome the resistance of the oligarchy and arm the people. The right wing (reformists and social democrats), in practice, wishes to call a halt to the Revolution, or at least to slow it down and arrive at a compromise with the oligarchy and imperialism.
In reality, the latter option does not exist. There is no compromise possible with the enemies of the Revolution, any more than oil can be mixed with water. The whole logic of the situation is moving in the direction of an open confrontation between the classes. Upon the decision of this conflict the destiny of the Revolution depends.
What attitude should the Marxists take in this concrete situation? Should we remain aloof, arguing that, since the Revolution is "bourgeois", we should have nothing to do with it? But that would be equivalent to remaining neutral in the struggle between Revolution and Counterrevolution. Such a position would be a betrayal of the Revolution and the working class. It would completely discredit any group or party that advocated it. They would be considered – with every justification – deserters and traitors.
To those who constantly remind us that the Marxists and the working class must retain their independence, we answer: You are reminding us of the ABCs of Marxism. We are grateful for this reminder, but we also wish to point out that after the ABC there are many more letters in the alphabet. It is of course necessary for the proletariat to maintain its class independence at all times and under all circumstances. That is why we call upon the workers of Venezuela to strengthen and build their class organisations – the trade unions, the factory committees, workers' control etc.
The same basic principle holds good for the Marxist tendency. We are for collaboration with other tendencies in the revolutionary movement – but the prior condition is: no mixing up of banners, programmes or ideas. We must at all times maintain the ideas, programme and policies of Marxism and fight for them within the broad movement. That is to say, the only correct position is:
1) Unconditional defence of the Venezuelan Revolution against the oligarchy and imperialism.
2) Critical support for the revolutionary democracy and Hugo Chavez against the oligarchy and imperialism.
3) Within the general mass movement (the Bolivarian Movement) we support the left wing against the reformists and Social Democrats.
4) Within the left wing the Marxists will defend their ideas, policies and programme and fight to win the majority by example, work, and the superiority of our ideas.
5) Within the broad movement, to fight to build strong independent organizations of the proletariat and extend their influence, beginning with the unions.
The need for a Marxist party
"We must build the Party! We must build the Party!" the sectarians repeat like a drunken parrot. But when asked how exactly the Venezuelan Marxists are supposed to build the Party, the parrots suddenly fall silent. "Why, by declaring it, of course!" This is quite amusing. So three men and a dog (or a drunken parrot) gather in a café in Caracas and proclaim the Revolutionary Party. Good. What then? "We call on the masses to join us!" Excellent. And what if the masses do not join you, preferring to remain in their mass Bolivarian organizations? "Well, that's their problem!"
These tremendously "clever" people who imagine that the participation of Marxists in the Bolivarian Movement represents the abandonment of the struggle for a revolutionary Marxist party merely show that they have not the slightest idea of how such a party will be built – either in Venezuela or in any other country. In this proposition there is not an atom of liquidationism or opportunism, but only an application of the genuine methods of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Let us quote a famous passage from the founding document of our movement, the Communist Manifesto. In the section Proletarians and Communists we read:
"In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties.
"They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
"They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
"The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only:
"(1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.
"(2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.
"The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement."
One would have thought that this was clear enough for a child of average intelligence to understand. Unfortunately, there are some very "clever" Marxists who do not possess this level of intelligence. Having perused the writings of some self-styled Marxists, Karl Marx once protested that if this was Marxism, he was no Marxist. We know just how he must have felt. But Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky really should not be blamed for the nonsense written in their name, any more than Jesus Christ should be blamed for Venezuelan bishops.
The logic of this position was long ago described by Shakespeare in his play Henry IV Part One, when the Welshman Owain Glyndower, a man with a lot of courage but mystical tendencies, tries to convince the prosaic Englishman Hotspur of his magic powers:
G: "I can call spirits from the vasty deep."
H: "Why so can I, and so can any man. But will they come when you do call for them?"
The proposition that it is possible to build a serious revolutionary party in Venezuela outside the mass movement is impossible to take seriously. We prefer to base ourselves on the methods worked out by Marx and Engels over 150 years – methods that, like all the fundamental ideas of Marxism, retain all their validity today. It is absolutely necessary to unite the forces of Marxism with the mass movement.
The working class must at all times preserve and build its own class organizations, its unions, factory committees, etc. At the same time it will work to build a mass movement that encompasses the widest layers of the non-proletarian and semi-proletarian masses. The Marxist wing of the movement will maintain its full political independence – its own papers, magazines, books and leaflets – and full freedom to defend its point of view. It will loyally work to build the movement and to draw in the widest layers of workers and youth, at the same time as it fights to win over the advanced elements to its programme, policies and ideas.
We do not seek to impose ourselves on the movement. We do not present it with ultimatums. Our aim is to build it, to strengthen it, to push it forwards and at the same time to arm the leading layer with the necessary ideas, programme and policy that can lead to the defeat of the oligarchy and imperialism and clear the way for the socialist transformation of society, for, as Lenin explains, a consistent fight for democracy will inevitably lead to the expropriation of the oligarchy and the transformation of the democratic revolution into a socialist revolution.
At present, this view may be a minority view. That does not worry us. We will accept that we are a minority and act accordingly. But we will continue to advocate the expropriation of the oligarchy and the arming of the masses as the only guarantee of the salvation of the Revolution, and events will prove us right. We will defend our ideas, and we invite all other tendencies to do the same. Only Stalinists and bureaucrats fear open debate. Marxists and honest revolutionary democrats do not.
We stand firmly on the basis of the movement of the revolutionary masses. On the basis of their experience the masses will learn the correctness of our ideas, slogans and programme. That is the only road to success! We will leave the final word to that grand old man of Marxism, that remarkable theoretician, Ted Grant, who wrote the following about the mass organizations:
"From within their ranks, among the working class fighters will come the forces of Marxism-Leninism. Outside of the mass organisations nothing of lasting substance will be created."
London, May 4th, 2004