The reawakening of the world working class and the tasks faced by Marxists - Part Three

Here Alan Woods looks at the conflicts between Russia and China on the one side and US imperialism on the other in areas such as Central Asia, the crisis of leadership of the ruling class, the revolutionary wave sweeping across Latin America and the particular role of Chavez who is faced with the stark alternative of either capitulating to the oligarchy and imperialism or continuing along the road he has followed so far and end up putting an end to capitalism.


In its ambition to dominate the whole world, US imperialism attempted to surround Russia with a string of puppet states in Central Asia. Having got Poland and other former Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe to join NATO, it then extended the scope of its intrigues to countries like the Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan. It has thus caused the destabilization of one country after another, setting the alarm bells ringing in Moscow and Beijing.

Russia and China are now attempting to counter the USA. Moscow is pressurizing Ukraine, using the powerful lever of oil and gas supplies to show the government in Kiev who is boss. It is also applying pressure on Georgia. It has succeeded in getting the Americans ejected from Uzbekistan. Having lost its base in Iraq, it is giving tacit support to both Iran and Syria against the bullying tactics of Washington.

For its part, China is using its economic successes to increase its already considerable military power. It is re-equipping its army. Its space programme is dictated primarily by military considerations (as is that of the USA). It is flexing its muscles in Asia, where it has issued a stern warning that it will never tolerate a declaration of independence by Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province of China. This is not a bluff. The rulers of Beijing fear that such a move might encourage breakaway movements in other parts of China. And they have the necessary military means to impose their will. Sooner or later there will be a head-on collision between the USA and China over the Pacific – the most decisive area for the future history of the world.

The Americans have not pacified Afghanistan, as they claimed. The recently elected parliament (loya jirga) consists of a motley assembly of warlords, drug barons and Taliban. Out of 240 members of this parliament, 200 are said to have private armies. The central power has only the American army and its foreign allies to rest on. Karzai only maintains a shaky control over Kabul thanks to the US forces who are (so far) keeping him alive. Outside the capital he controls nothing. Meanwhile, Pakistan and the whole of Central Asia has been destabilized. This is hardly a satisfactory balance sheet from the standpoint of Washington.

In Pakistan, the earthquake was equally an accident – a terrible freak of nature. But it brought to the fore all the accumulated social and political tensions in Pakistan. The system is now so fragile, so inherently unstable, that any external shock can cause a deep crisis. The Pakistan ruling class is so desperate that they have decided to unleash the national question, stoking the fires of national conflicts in Baluchistan and elsewhere. This will have serious repercussions in the North West Frontier (already in a state of turmoil), Sindh and Kashmir itself.

US imperialism, having aggravated the situation by its interference in the region, has tried to prop up its puppet Musharaff, but it is leaning on a broken reed. Musharaff can be overthrown or assassinated at any time. This will open up the floodgates, preparing the way for revolutionary developments that will affect the whole Subcontinent. The tragedy in Kashmir caused a wave of spontaneous sympathy on the part of the masses in India. This does not suit either the reactionary Pakistan ruling class or the equally reactionary Indian bourgeoisie. Neither side is interested in solving the Kashmir question, which they have always used to stir up hatred between the peoples in order to divert attention away from the class struggle.

The crisis in India is also deepening. The defeat of the reactionary BJP at the last elections represented a political earthquake, but the bourgeois Congress has been rapidly discredited. Under the remorseless pressure of the IMF, it has carried out a policy of “reform” (that is, counter reforms). As a result it is in crisis and is stricken by scandals. In fact, both Congress and the BJP are in crisis and splitting. Meanwhile the powerful Indian working class, which prepared the electoral victory of Congress with a general strike, is once again flexing its muscles in a new strike wave. But both the CPI and CPI (m) are tacitly supporting the Congress government. This is causing growing discontent in the ranks. For the first time the unions have struck in Kerala where the CPI (m) is in power.

Crisis of the ruling class

In most of the world, we see a total inability to develop the productive forces as in the past (China is the most important exception). This shows that capitalism is no longer capable of playing a progressive role. There is reaction at all levels, not just in politics, but also in culture. We see the distilled essence of this reaction in the USA. The most advanced country on earth, the most scientifically developed in history, is being run by a degenerate clique of obscurantist religious fundamentalists. Under the slogan of “intelligent design”, they are advancing the ideas of Creationism.

The sickness of the system expresses itself in politics, culture, art, philosophy, economy. In the final analysis, this is an expression of the impasse of a system that is incapable of developing the productive forces any further. It has the stink of decay about it in the same way as the regime of the Bourbons, or of the Roman Empire in the period of its decline.

The Liberals of the 19th century used to say that the people get the government they deserve. That is not strictly correct, but it is certainly true that the ruling class has got the leaders it deserves. In the past Trotsky said that the real religion of the British ruling class was not Christianity but national arrogance. But at least the national arrogance of Lloyd George, Baldwin and Churchill was accompanied by a degree of intelligence.

It is no coincidence that the period of the senile decay of capitalism produces leaders like Bush, Blair and Merkel. Some might ask what is the point in mentioning the intellectual ability of George Bush, or rather the lack of it? Does not Marxism base itself on the general historical processes, which in turn are determined by the stage of development of the productive forces? The answer to this question was given long ago by Marx and Engels, who explained that men and women make their own history, although, contrary to the belief of the idealists, they are not entirely free agents in the historical process and must function within the range of possibilities that are, in the last analysis, determined by economic factors.

It is not at all correct to say that the personal qualities of the bourgeois leaders play no role. Such a statement is like saying that the personal qualities of the general staff plays no role in warfare. It resembles the barren scholastic caricature of Marxism of those formalists who argue that because socialism is historically inevitable, there is no need to build a revolutionary party and leadership. As a matter of fact, not only do the personal qualities of Bush and Blair play a role in shaping events, they also reflect objective reality. Lenin explained that a man at the edge of a cliff does not reason.

Middle class moralists have a superficial view of the world situation. They wring their hands and lament: “what a terrible world we live in!” They do not understand that all these horrors are only the outward symptoms of a deeper crisis, a crisis of the system itself. Such ugly phenomena have always accompanied every declining system on its way to extinction, as any student of the history of the Roman Empire and the decline of feudalism will be well aware. But just to see the negative side of things is entirely unscientific. It is also useless in practice. These people resemble a bad doctor who limits himself to complaining about the symptoms exhibited by his patient instead of providing a scientific diagnosis of the disease and suggesting a remedy.

Marxists do not adopt a moralistic attitude to the phenomena that we see before us. We understand that these symptoms are the necessary product of a socio economic system that has outlived its historical usefulness and is exhibiting all the signs of a terminal sickness. It is the inevitable result of the death agony of capitalism. To tell the truth, it is a system that ought to have been overthrown long ago. The old society is dying on its feet and the new society is struggling to be born.

The task of the Marxists is to do everything in our power to cut short this convulsive process that is threatening to undermine civilisation and human culture and to develop and help the forces of a new society. That is to say: we must help the working class, starting with its most conscious elements, and the youth, to understand the tasks posed by history and to fulfil its historic mission: the socialist transformation of society.

We must understand the other side of the picture: the revolutionary elements that are beginning to emerge from the general turmoil. Yes, this is a terrible world. But out of this chaos, convulsions, wars, death and suffering, a new force is emerging. We see this in the unprecedented mass demonstrations against the criminal war in Iraq. We see it in the mass strikes in France, Belgium, Italy, in Canada and in Australia, in the strikes and movement of the students in Spain and the developing opposition to the war in the USA. Above all, we see it most clearly in the developing revolution in Latin America.

Latin America

In Latin America the revolutionary wave has gone further than anywhere else. It is a genuinely continental process, in which events in one country affect events in every other country. The Venezuelan Revolution has become the main point of reference. Now Evo Morales has won the elections in Bolivia with 54% of the votes, representing the will of the masses to change society. This represents a major turn in the situation. The might of the USA is being challenged in one country after another.

In the 19th century, when the young American Republic was still flexing its muscles, the nascent imperialist tendencies of the American bourgeoisie were expressed by the slogan “America for the Americans”. Now, when the USA has been transformed into the leading imperialist world power, its slogan is “the whole world for the Americans.” But this is impossible, even for the USA. In reality, the US imperialists have over-reached themselves.

The reformists and pacifists are hypnotized by the “absolute” power of US imperialism. But the power of the USA, although phenomenal, is not unlimited. This is shown both in Iraq and also in Latin America. Of Latin America we said six years ago that it was the key to the world revolution, and we took the necessary organisational measures to react to this fact. We see here the vital importance of perspectives. They are our key and our compass.

We were the only ones to understand the Venezuelan Revolution. Now everyone is running to catch up. The sects and the Stalinists have finally woken up to what is happening. A few months ago the leader of the French Mandelites, Alain Krivine, said: “It seems that something is happening in Venezuela…” That shows the level of these gentlemen. They have absolutely no idea of what is happening and therefore are powerless to intervene.

Latin America shows the limits of US imperialism. In the past, whatever Washington said was put into practice. But the attempt to foist the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement on Latin America failed miserably. And Bush got a very hot reception in Buenos Aires when he went to the Summit of the OSA. Washington is alarmed. They feel that control of Latin America is slipping out of their hands.

Of course, this does not mean that they will just remain with arms folded. No! They are already intervening, and not only with words. The Colombia Plan, which was supposed to be part of the so-called War on drugs, is in reality a war against the guerrillas. It is also an attempt to create a base for US imperialism in Latin America, from which to launch interventions against other states, in the first place, Venezuela. They have turned Colombia into an armed camp, injecting vast sums of money and also sending arms and so-called advisers to prop up the reactionary regime of Uribe.

The Venezuelan Revolution is what most worries Washington. It has gone quite far, but state and key parts of the economy are still in bourgeois hands. Therefore it can still be reversed, and this is the main aim of US imperialism.

The question of power is posed in Venezuela. In the past, the question of power would have to be settled relatively quickly. One side or the other would triumph: either reaction would take power in a bloody coup or the workers would take power. Chile in 1973 was the clearest example of this. But in Venezuela this hasn’t happened. Events are proceeding in a different fashion. There is still enormous power in the hands of the workers who have not been defeated. On the other hand, we can see the weakness of reaction.

The counterrevolutionary forces have been defeated a number of times when they have attempted to take power. In fact in April 2002 they had power in their hands but the coup was defeated. This was the first time in Latin American history that a successful coup was overthrown by the movement of the masses. Yet, incredibly, the Venezuelan Stalinists and reformists complain about the “low level” of the masses. These wretched petty bourgeois have absolutely no confidence in the masses and no perspective of ever taking power. They represent a completely reactionary and retrograde tendency that, if it had its way, would destroy the Revolution and hand power to the reactionaries. Then they would tour Europe weeping about the tragedy of Venezuela and blame the masses for trying to go too far, too fast.

The masses in Venezuela have in fact shown extraordinary levels of revolutionary maturity. Yet they have not taken power. Why not? The only reason is the absence of the subjective factor: the revolutionary party and leadership. Objectively, there is no reason. The objective conditions could not be more favourable for carrying out the revolution. In the short term, at least, the reaction cannot succeed. The right wing showed its complete impotence when it boycotted the legislative elections. They are split and demoralised.

Given the patent weakness of the forces of internal reaction, Washington is becoming desperate. The petty bourgeois elements are scared of a military intervention from the United States. They continually shout, “The Americans are coming!” like the little boy who never tired of crying “Wolf!” In reality, a direct military intervention by the USA is ruled out at the present time. The US imperialists are trapped in Iraq. Bush can’t open a second front in Venezuela – at least not directly.

It is possible that under certain circumstances they might decide to intervene through Colombia. But even that is very risky option. Revolutions don’t respect frontiers. A war with Venezuela could lead to the overthrow of Uribe, not Chavez. It would be a signal for the Colombian guerrillas to step up their attacks. The Colombian army would find itself fighting on two fronts. Such a war would be deeply unpopular in Colombia. There are at least one million Colombians in Venezuela. Chavez has given them full citizenship rights. They are in contact with their families and friends back home. In addition there would be the effects throughout Latin America and in the USA itself, where the Latinos are now the biggest ethnic minority, overwhelmingly poor and exploited. How would they react?

Will the CIA try to assassinate Chavez? That is a distinct possibility. But that would not solve the problem. The masses in Venezuela would react with fury. The oil supplies to the USA would be cut off the next day. Then a violent reaction on the part of the masses would follow throughout Latin America. Not a single US embassy would be left standing, and there would be a further intensification of the revolutionary process everywhere. So Washington must tread carefully even on this question.

At this point the reaction cannot overthrow Chavez, but this situation cannot continue indefinitely. The fact that Venezuela holds large stocks of oil is undoubtedly another factor that allows it a certain breathing space and room for manoeuvre. This element has given the right wing of the Bolivarian Movement – the pro-bourgeois element – a false sense of security. However, it cannot be assumed that the present favourable class balance of forces will be maintained for any length of time.

The level of abstentions in the legislative elections is an indication that the mood of the masses is changing. They are becoming impatient and frustrated with the slow progress of the Revolution. These are the early danger signs. If the masses lose faith in the Revolution and sink into apathy and indifference, the stage can be set for a new offensive of the counterrevolutionary elements. They can count on the support not only of the US embassy but also of numerous counterrevolutionary sympathisers in the upper reaches of the Bolivarian Movement.

The masses want change. Now that the chavistas have a decisive majority in the National Assembly there is no excuse for not taking decisive measures against the oligarchy. The masses will demand this. They will say: “the leaders must do as we say.” A section of the leadership reflects the pressure of the masses. They want to go further along the line of expropriations and workers’ control. But the right wing is dragging its feet. They express the pressures of the bourgeoisie and imperialism. This is the central contradiction that must be resolved, one way or another, in the next period.

Role of Chavez

Chavez is a peculiar phenomenon. He started out as a bourgeois democrat, but the theory of Permanent Revolution is being manifested in a peculiar way in Venezuela   as it was in Cuba and China. Of course, there are many differences, but there are also many similarities. The main point is the impossibility of carrying out the tasks of the bourgeois democratic or, as Lenin called it, the national democratic revolution on the basis of capitalism. Chavez has been met at every step with the ferocious resistance and sabotage of the Venezuelan landlords, bankers and capitalists.

The main thing is the role of the masses, that are playing the role of the main motor force in the Revolution. The bourgeoisie is applying pressure to halt the Revolution, but at each stage they have been pushed aside by the workers and peasants. The alternatives are starkly posed: either Chavez capitulates to the oligarchy and imperialism   which does not seem likely – or he must make serious inroads into capitalist private property. So far, he shows no signs of retreating. On the contrary, he is on a direct collision course with Washington and the oligarchy – who also have no intention of retreating.

What happens when the irresistible force, hits the immovable object? Something has to give. The legislative elections were an important turning point. The reactionaries in effect abandoned all efforts to take power by peaceful legal means. The question of power is therefore posed point-blank. Chavez now controls the National Assembly. He has said: “In my next term of office, we must make the Revolution irreversible.” What does that mean? We don’t know. Maybe Chavez does not know either. But events have a logic of their own.

The objective logic of the Revolution poses the need to expropriate the oligarchy. It would be possible for Chavez to lean on the masses to expropriate the oligarchy. But this would signify an immediate split in the Bolivarian movement. The MVR was always a highly heterogeneous and ideologically confused movement. At the top, there must be a large number of counter-revolutionary elements. Imperialism is leaning on the right wing “Chavistas” and organizing intrigues with the corrupt elements who favour capitalism and secretly curse the President and the Revolution.

A struggle must open up, in which one side or another must win. Chavez can only win by leaning on the masses, by appealing to them and arousing them to struggle against the right wing. It is not certain that events will unfold in exactly this way, but if they did, what kind of regime would emerge? Would it be a form of proletarian bonapartism? Stalin came to power in an epoch when the Russian masses were exhausted and politically defeated. This is not the case in Venezuela. The working class is aroused, conscious and very sensitive on the question of democracy, which is a main issue.

Chavez can only lean on the masses by appealing to democratic instincts: to cleanse the state apparatus of bureaucracy and careerism. This is not a recipe for a proletarian bonapartist state like Stalin’s Russia. The masses, and the workers in particular, are coming to the correct conclusions: that the workers must control their leaders and their organisations. We see this in every election, when there are protests against the rigging of the electoral lists. This is the only real safeguard against the usurpation of the Revolution by a privileged caste of bureaucrats.

Within the Bolivarian leadership, opposing tendencies are emerging, reflecting the pressures of different classes. One section wants to go further. The other demands the reintegration of the opposition. They argue that it is dangerous that the counterrevolutionaries are not in parliament (a fairly logical result of boycotting the elections). The right wing Bolivarians demand that the majority must bow to the wishes of the minority. And this is what they call democracy! Fortunately, the masses have other ideas. There have been new expropriations as a result of the workers’ initiative from below. The workers demand that the revolution be carried out to the end.

Chavez received six million votes in the referendum, but in the legislative elections only three million voted. This is a warning. A mood of impatience is growing among the workers and peasants – and particularly the advanced elements – the working class activists in the unions and the Bolivarian organisations: “We’ve had enough of this, we need to finish the Revolution”. Chavez himself has given voice to these aspirations when he talks about socialism and the need for a “Revolution within the Revolution”. He quotes Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. He has raised the question that Trotsky was right against Stalin when he said that socialism cannot succeed in a single country. He has said: we want socialism but not like the USSR, we must have a participatory democracy. He has even called for world socialism, quoting Marx’s slogan: “socialism or barbarism.”

Chavez has become the rallying figure for those across the continent who want to fight imperialism and capitalism. After the OAS meeting in Argentina, he spoke out against secret diplomacy, demanding the publication of the texts. After his trip to the UN, he spoke to poor people in the Bronx, advocating socialism. Chavez is a nightmare not just for the US but also for the reformist governments in Latin America. When people see what is happening in Venezuela, they put pressure on leaders like Lula, Kirchner and Vasquez. That is a serious danger from the standpoint of imperialism.

The Venezuelan revolution has begun, in the same sense that the revolution in Spain began in 1931. If the Venezuelan workers possessed a Bolshevik party of 8,000 members they would have taken power by now. But such a party doe not exist – yet. It has to be built. And how is this to be accomplished? Certainly not by proclaiming it, as the sects imagine.

To build a serious revolutionary party it is necessary to work out the correct tactics, slogans, and methods in order to connect with the mass movement, or else the party will be finished before it has begun. We take our stand on the scientific programme of Bolshevism. But it is not as simple as just repeating a few phrases from “What is to be Done?” With such a mechanical conception, we would never link with the masses.

If you make a theoretical error, it will sooner or later come back and have a practical effect. We were the only ones to call for the nationalisation of VENEPAL. Unfortunately, some comrades in the trade union movement in the region were opposed to this slogan with the following formalistic argument: how can we demand this of a bourgeois government? The workers, however, after some discussion, accepted our slogan against their advice. In a very short time Chavez nationalised the factory.

All the sects attack us for our alleged “capitulation” before Chavez. “You must attack Chavez!” they keep on shouting. Yes, by all means shout to your hearts content, ladies and gentlemen. We have not the slightest intention of following your advice. We offer critical support to Chavez. The sects equate criticism with denunciation. That is not at all our method. You do it in the following way: if the leaders take one step forward, we will say, very good, now take another step! And you explain what is needed in a positive way. That way it is possible to get the ear of the masses.

The imperialists understand a bit more than the “Marxist” sectarians concerning the role of Hugo Chavez – hence their desire to assassinate him! The struggle within the Bolivarian movement is a reflection of the class struggle – workers on one side, imperialists and bourgeois on the other. Our tactic is to aim our fire against the oligarchy, imperialism and the right wing of the Bolivarian movement. And this is what is working.

The ultra-lefts don’t see the opportunities; instead they focus on creating a revolutionary party, which is not going anywhere. Unfortunately, sectarian elements have gained leading positions in the UNT, where they exercise a negative influence. With our small forces, we have won some important points of support, and are beginning to have an impact on the situation, starting with the occupied factories like INVEVAL. We must not exaggerate, but our tendency has had a certain effect in Venezuela. Our ideas have found an echo. Whatever happens, we can be proud of our record. It is not a question of boasting: it is an empirically verifiable fact. This International is the only one that understood the whole process in Venezuela. This is understood and appreciated by serious people. The opinions of those who are not serious are of no interest to us.

In the past, we often discussed in the abstract. Now we are acting as a revolutionary International, not a discussion club. We are active participants in the revolutionary process, not mere observers. We must discuss Venezuela on a much more concrete level. We can raise the level of the entire International on the basis of this subject alone. We must provide support to our Venezuelan section. It is not just a question of Venezuela. It is a question of the developing revolution in all Latin America. This is why Washington is terrified. Ultimately, however, it is not just South America or even North America: it is a question of the developing world revolution.

To be continued…

London, February 1, 2006

See also Part One and Part Two