In the latest test for President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans are voting in a presidential election that will decide the future of the country's radical reforming government. Michael Lebowitz talks to SR about the nature of the "Bolivarian Revolution".
Hugo Chavez is the most prominent symbol of a far-reaching revolutionary process in Venezuela, which has provided inspiration for those fighting corporate globalisation and imperialism across Latin America and around the globe. A hero to millions, he is a thorn in the side of George Bush.
Michael Lebowitz, a leading Marxist writer currently living in the capital, Caracas, has just published a new book entitled Build It Now, which examines the potential for this process to lead to the creation of a new "socialism for the 21st century". He answered questions from SR.
In the title of the last chapter of your book you use the phrase "The Revolution of Radical Needs". What makes events in Venezuela a revolution, and who is driving this process forwards?
A revolution is not a coup or a specific act - it is a process. There definitely is a revolutionary process under way in Venezuela.
This process is creating conditions that empower people from below while keeping firmly in sight the goal of human development, which is where the phrase in my title comes from. It is a process in which oil money is being used both to support the development of human productive forces and also to create new productive relations. And it is one where a new form of power from below - communal councils - organising neighbourhoods composed of 200 to 400 families in urban areas, is rapidly spreading. How far this process will go won't be decided by analysts, but only through real struggle.
Certainly, Chavez is pushing this process forward. There's no question about this - you only have to read his speeches. But Chavez doesn't act in a vacuum. The incredible response he gets from the masses makes him what he is. In the absence of this response, which electrifies him and gives him energy and confidence, I suspect that he would be absorbed into the "Third Way" perspective that he had at the time of his initial election. So I see a dialectical process here between leadership and those at the base of society.
How are those at the base of society organised? In your book you talk about the need to construct a "political instrument" or party of some kind. Are there signs of this happening? How could the different sectors - informal workers living in the barrios, organised workers in the UNT union federation, agricultural workers and peasants - be drawn together?
In local communities, those at the base are organised in many ways, for example through land committees, health committees, water committees, defence, sports, etc. And in the communal councils the focus is upon bringing these specific sectoral concerns together so the communities can look at their problems as a whole. This is an important step in uniting that base.
But we are still a way off from linking those individual communities in common demands and, further, linking them directly with organised workers, who tend to be well off relative to the masses in the informal sector. Part of the problem is that the UNT union federation has been so preoccupied with internal factional struggles that the leadership which organised workers could provide is absent. So, at this point, the development of that political instrument which I see as necessary is a slow process.
It could emerge more rapidly in the context of a political crisis, or if Chavez threw his energy into stressing the importance of political organisation at the base - as he did during the 2004 referendum campaign, in which the elite tried to have him removed as president.
Venezuela is still a capitalist society, with dire poverty. There have been ambitious social programmes, in health, education, literacy and so on. How far is it possible to reform Venezuelan society without new revolutionary convulsions?
I think the social programmes have made a big difference to the majority, but that a revolutionary rupture will be necessary, sooner or later, if this process is to continue to move along a socialist path. What form it would take, however, is unclear.
In the absence of political and cultural revolutions, the revolution will be inevitably deformed. By cultural I mean the problem of the long-standing pattern of clientalism and corruption - a disease to which Chavist leaders are by no means immune. And this is not simply a question of attitudes. There are people around Chavez who want "Chavez without socialism". As I write in my book, these are people whose concern for "development of the capabilities and capacities of the masses is not as compelling as the desire for the accumulation of power and comfort for their families".
Class struggle is everywhere in Venezuela. It's there in the battle against US imperialism and neoliberalism, and for real sovereignty. It's there in the battle between Venezuela's old oligarchy and the Bolivarian Revolution [the name Chavez has applied to the process in Venezuela]. It's there in the struggle between Venezuelan capitalists and organised workers as well as peasants, and it's there in the growing divergence between a new would-be Bolivarian oligarchy and the masses of those excluded and exploited.
All of these are in play at the same time, but in my view, the contradictions within the Chavist camp itself point to the most immediate threat to the progress of the revolution. They reveal the barrier that must be removed in order to proceed on other fronts. But, again, how that happens depends upon many contingent factors.
To what extent is the state an obstacle to socialist transformation in Venezuela? You quote Karl Marx's comment on the Paris Commune of 1871, when workers briefly held power in the city. He argued, based on that experience, that workers can't take control over the "ready-made state machinery" that grows up under capitalism. Does that mean the state has to be "smashed" or can the state be "transformed"? Do workers need to create their own state from below, as happened during the Commune?
So far the existing Venezuelan state has been an enormous obstacle - even to the establishment of the social programmes. It's important to keep in mind that all the successful programmes introduced have occurred by forming "missions" which bypass existing state structures. And now a new state has the potential to emerge in the form of the communal councils, one that creates the basis for power from below - a new kind of state, much like Marx saw in the Paris Commune.
So, yes, I do think that a new kind of state is needed, but precisely how it is put into place in Venezuela or elsewhere doesn't have to follow a particular formula. Rather, what is important is the clear recognition of the goal - that only a state that is democratic and decentralised, as Marx learned from French workers, can allow for the full development of working people. However, if I'm asked how I feel about people who say that the state must be "smashed" because the state (any state) by definition betrays and defeats you, I just laugh.
What about the international dimension? Is there a danger of Venezuela becoming isolated from other countries?
Yes, there is that danger. And, yes, Venezuela needs international support and needs not to be isolated. Having said that, though, the question is what kind of isolation and what do you do to prevent it?
Some people say, "We need to do everything possible to win public opinion to support the Bolivarian Revolution." And what do they mean by public opinion? Well, the mass media, influential intellectuals and left opinion makers. So what is the implication of that focus - it's that you should conform, not stick out, because you'll be hammered. So just do your nice anti-poverty programmes, and you'll get that support, they argue. We'll be able to describe you as "old Labour".
Such people would say, "No, no, don't remove your ambassador from Israel in response to its assaults on the Lebanese and Palestinian people - you will alienate important countries whose support you need in checking US aggression against you." But the masses in the Middle East understood the importance of Venezuela's action and celebrated Chavez's principled courage in taking this action - one which made the inaction of their own compromised governments so visible.
More in dispute is the matter of Chavez's celebrated UN speech [in which he referred to George Bush as "the devil"]. The wisdom of domestic and foreign international experts would say, "Look, there in that speech Chavez screwed Venezuela's chances at getting a seat on the UN Security Council." Well, maybe (I'm not convinced the votes were ever there). But Chavez, speaking naturally in the same way he does to the Venezuelan masses, also electrified masses around the world through that speech and excited them about something different happening in Venezuela.
Even more important was the response in Venezuela itself. Of course, opposition people as well as supporters who worry about the reaction of the respectables were predictable. However, what I saw was incredible pride among workers and the masses - people saying he's the only one telling the truth; he's the only one with the "cojones" ["balls"].
And there's something here that goes beyond the particulars of Venezuela and Chavez's UN speech. I've been reading (finally!) C L R James's magnificent book, The Black Jacobins, about the 1791-1803 Haitian Revolution. One point made so clearly is that the fatal error of Toussaint L'Ouverture [who led the forces that liberated the island from the colonial powers] was his manoeuvring and trying to convince France of his good intentions while ignoring, in the process, the need to communicate with the revolutionary masses and understand what they needed to hear. And the same problem, I understand, occurred with the Sandinistas [who ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990], who tried to convince imperialism that they were really "nice guys", rather than tailoring their message to their own base. The first responsibility of revolutionary leadership is to stay in touch with the masses. And that is Chavez's natural gut instinct - he empathises with and speaks the thoughts of the masses. When he follows those instincts, he is at his best.
So what about the problem of international isolation, then? The responsibility for preventing this is that of the left outside Venezuela. I have little patience with popes of the left who issue their encyclicals about how yet another real world example fails their pristine tests for socialism. It is a responsibility of revolutionaries to learn what is happening in Venezuela and to spread an understanding of the use of oil revenue to create new productive relations, the extent and variety of programmes which are supporting the development of the capacity of people, the creation of communal councils, and what is happening in workplace occupations and worker decision-making. And I think that organising international solidarity on this basis is simultaneously a way of organising domestically to build a new common sense that challenges capitalism.
The last time SR looked in detail at Venezuela was at the start of this year. What's changed in the past 12 months and how important is the current election campaign?
Perhaps the most significant changes are the development of the communal councils and the extent to which the organised working class, by splintering organisationally, is not currently playing an important role in the process. The real question is what next year will bring. Chavez has stressed the need to deepen the socialist process and bring people together to create a unique party of the revolution. What that will mean in practice is really unclear.
This election is obviously critical to the continuation of the process. But I have never seen a more incoherent campaign than that being run on behalf of Chavez. I think this is a clear reflection of intense contradictions within the Chavist camp. In the absence of a struggle to shift power to the base within the Chavist forces, I'm not at all optimistic about the deepening of the socialist process, and think a unique party would be a barrier rather than an instrument for moving along a socialist path. In short, I think we are potentially entering into a new phase of class struggle in Venezuela.
Michael Lebowitz's Build It Now: Socialism For The Twenty-First Century is published by Monthly Review Press and available from Bookmarks, 020 7637 1848