The transition to socialism in Venezuela: What is to be done?

Sixteen years since Chavez came to power, the Bolivarian revolution has still not been completed. A revolution cannot be carried out partially. Either it goes all the way in removing capitalism once and for all, or it opens dangers for itself, which in the long run can lead to defeat, with the oligarchy regaining full political control. In this article written last year, Jorge Martin looks at what needs to be done to complete the Venezuelan revolution.

“The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”
(K Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871)

[Note: This article was written in September 2014 by Jorge Martín for the new magazine “Proceso: revista crítica de izquierda” (Process: a critical left magazine), published by the political education school Escuela de Gobierno Hugo Chávez Frías of the Merida governorship.]

It is now 16 years since the 1998 election victory of Hugo Chávez in the presidential elections, an event that can be considered as one of the starting points of the Bolivarian Revolution (which of course, has its roots in the 1989 Caracazo peoples’ insurrection and the failed civilian-military uprising of February 1992).

The Bolivarian revolution has achieved a number of important conquests in terms of the improvement in the material conditions of the masses (particularly in education, healthcare, housing and access to food). There have also been important advances in the organisation and political consciousness of the masses, as well as the development and ideological clarification of the revolution itself.

There is no need to go into the field of the material gains of the revolution in detail, but it is worth mentioning some of them as they speak for themselves: access to healthcare was made available to the whole of the population through the different stages of the Misión Barrio Adentro (Into the Neighbourhoods), implemented with the support of thousands of Cuban doctors and medical personnel; the broadening of the education system at all levels, including the eradication of illiteracy; and a massive plan of house building for families in need.

In the field of organisation and political consciousness of the masses we have seen an extraordinary transformation, which is one of the hallmarks of any revolutionary process. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said in the preface to his History of the Russian Revolution: “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. … 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.” (Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 1929-32, our emphasis).

controlobreroThe forcible entry of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny was precisely the main feature of the defeat of the Carmona coup in April 2002, the defeat of the lock out and sabotage of the oil industry in 2002-03, the defeat of the guarimba street riots of 2004, the battle over the recall referendum in the same year, the struggle for land reform, the battles over workers’ control at Invepal, Inveval and so many other companies, the struggle for the renationalisation of SIDOR and for workers’ control in the basic industries in Guayana, etc. The masses of workers and peasants, the women in the working class neighbourhoods, the revolutionary youth, they have all shown on numerous occasions a high level of political consciousness of their own general interests and the need to participate directly instead of delegating to others.

Dozens of revolutionary organisations of different kinds and with different scopes have been created. From the Urban Land Committees and the Bolivarian Circles, to Political Education Schools, Revolutionary Workers’ Councils, Bolivarian Trade Unions, peasant organisations and youth, sports, cultural and neighbourhood organisations of all kinds.

struggle-against-food-shortages-thumbMillions of people who previously had never participated in politics have become directly involved in deciding their own future, because they have felt that this was their revolution and that it was they who were taking power into their own hands.

This level of consciousness and organisation is perhaps even more important than the material gains of the revolution when it comes to understanding its resilience faced with the constant onslaught of the oligarchy and imperialism. On April 12 and 13, 2002, hundreds of thousands of revolutionary workers, women and youth came out on the streets, surrounding the Fuerte Tiuna barracks in the capital, the 42nd Parachute Regiment in Maracay, in the Bolivar Squares of countless towns and villages, and around the presidential palace in Miraflores. They were not defending any material gain (at a time when none had been achieved), but the revolution itself, that is, a president that they had put in power and who they felt represented directly their own interests and the possibility of real change. They were fighting against an oligarchy which represented the past and excluded them from political life.

Millions suffered real hardship during the criminal bosses’ lockout and sabotage of the oil industry over the Christmas 2002 period. Thousands of workers, people from poor communities and revolutionary elements within the National Guard combined to surround and defend the installations of the state oil company PDVSA. Thousands of PDVSA workers organised to take over the company and restart production. They were not defending the Barrio Adentro healthcare programmes, nor the literacy campaign Misión Robinson, nor the Socialist Housing plan, none of which existed at the time. They were exercising power, forcibly entering the realm of rulership over their own lives and their own future.

In the field of ideological clarification the Bolivarian revolution has also taken giant leaps forward. When president Chávez came to power in 1998, his programme was one of social progress, democratic renewal and national sovereignty. Without a doubt it was a progressive programme which connected with the deep felt aspiration for change of the masses, but one which did not specifically raise the question of challenging capitalism or imperialism.

It was the practical experience of the revolution itself which propelled it forward. When president Chávez proposed the 49 Enabling Laws in December 2001, immediately the oligarchy and imperialism started to prepare a military coup. The laws proposed, in and of themselves, were not particularly radical, nor anti-capitalist. They amounted to a number of progressive reforms regarding agrarian reform, fishing and other activities, and were accompanied by the government asserting direct control over the administration board of PDVSA (which was already a state-owned company).

The Venezuelan oligarchy - that is, the parasitical, rent-seeking landowners, capitalists and bankers, both backward and servile to imperialism - could not stomach even these limited progressive steps. More so as the election of Chávez had been accompanied by a mobilisation of the widest layers of the masses which were becoming organised at all levels, a process which the President himself was promoting and encouraging.

The oligarchy could count on the open support of imperialism (not only Washington, but also European imperialism and particularly that of the former colonial master, Spain). The conclusion could not be avoided: any attempt to carry out a serious transformation of the country in order to improve the living conditions of the masses and the general progress of the country could only be implemented by clashing head on with the power of the oligarchy and imperialism.

chavez flickrOn May 16, 2004, during a huge revolutionary mobilisation against paramilitarism and reaction, president Chávez announced the anti-imperialist character of the Bolivarian revolution. A few days earlier 100 Colombian paramilitaries had been found in a landed estate near Caracas, part of a plan to assassinate the president. This was the culmination of a campaign of street protests and guarimba riots organised by the reactionary opposition during the months of February and March of that year.

“The Bolivarian revolution, after five years and three months, and a bit more of government, and after having gone through different stages, has entered into the anti-imperialist phase. It is an anti-imperialist revolution and this fills it with special content which forces us, yes, it forces us to think clearly and act accordingly, not only in Venezuela but worldwide”, said president Chavez then.

chavez mundoA few months later, Hugo Chávez declared the socialist character of the revolution and the need to overcome capitalism. In January 2005, in a meeting during the closing of the World Social Forum in Brazil, Chávez said: “Everyday I become more convinced, there is no doubt in my mind, and as many intellectuals have said, that it is necessary to transcend capitalism. But capitalism can’t be transcended from within capitalism itself, but through socialism, true socialism, with equality and justice.”

That speech opened up a widespread debate on socialism involving millions of people. It was also at that time that the first expropriations took place, first of the latifundia, but then also of factories whose owners had abandoned them (such as the cases of Invepal and Inveval) and which had been occupied by the workers.

Inevitably, the struggle to improve the general living conditions of the masses was putting the question of the economy and the ownership of the means of production at the centre of the debate. It became clear, in the eyes of millions, that within the limits of capitalism it was not possible to solve the problems of misery, poverty, undernourishment, illiteracy and economic backwardness which affected the majority of the population.

In the 2006 presidential elections, Hugo Chávez stated openly that the choice was not between himself and the opposition candidate Manuel Rosales, but between capitalism and socialism. The result was one of the largest number of votes the Bolivarian revolution has ever received: 7.3 million, representing 63% of the vote, with a turnout of 75%.

However, eight years later, despite all the achievements, the revolution has not been completed. Venezuela is still a capitalist country, in which production for private profit still dominates the economy, and where the old bourgeois state apparatus, although weakened, still exists and has not been replaced by a new set of revolutionary institutions.

The oligarchy and imperialism continue to conspire and plot against the Bolivarian revolution, counting on their control of key sectors of the economy.

The French revolutionary Saint-Just, one of the main political and military leaders of the great French Revolution, warned that “those who make half a revolution only dig their own grave”.

We have to ask ourselves, what measures would be needed in order to complete the revolution? And above all, why have they not yet been implemented?

The measures which need to be taken are clear for all to see and they were already explained by president Chávez himself on numerous occasions: the establishment of a socialist economy and the abolition of the old bourgeois state apparatus. Already in 2007, after the election victory of 2006, during the swearing in of his new cabinet, Hugo Chávez spoke of the five engines of socialist revolution, stressing once and gain the need to “dismantle” the “old bourgeois state which is still alive and kicking” and to build a “revolutionary state” a “socialist state”.

Abolish the capitalist state

What are we talking about here? The experience of the 1871 Paris Commune gives us a clear idea of what state is required by a socialist revolution. It was that very same experience which led Marx and Engels to suggest an amendment to the Communist Manifesto. In their preface to the 1872 German edition, they say that on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune “where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months” it was proven that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

The experience of the Bolivarian revolution fully confirms the validity of that observation. There are plenty of examples of how the old IV Republic bourgeois state (which is “still alive and kicking”) sabotages the revolutionary initiative of the masses and even blocks laws and decrees of the government itself. From judges who free corrupt businessmen and help them avoid being tried, to officials of the Ministry of Labour who block the registration of a new trade union, or labour inspectors who are at the service of the bosses, to officers of the National Guard who protect the landowners against the peasants, to mention just a few examples.

It is not by chance that the example of the Paris Commune was studied in detail by Lenin when the Bolsheviks were preparing to take power in Russia. In “The Civil War in France”, Marx explained the main features of the Commune:

“Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.

“The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

“Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible, and at all times revocable, agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workman’s wage. The vested interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of state disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the state was laid into the hands of the Commune.” (K. Marx, The Civil War in France).

The main features of the Commune were therefore:

  1. the election and right of recall at any time of all public officials

  2. no official to receive a wage above that of a worker

  3. the suppression of the standing army by the people in arms

This is a simple programme which would break the back of the old bourgeois state and allow for the beginning of the building, in practice, of a communal, revolutionary state. If no official earns a wage above that of a worker (one could add a skilled worker), that would immediately exclude careerists and corrupt individuals, as well as guaranteeing that officials do not become separated from the living conditions and problems of those they represent. The right of recall is also a guarantee that whenever the representative ceases to represent the views of those who elected him or her, instead of having to wait for five years until there are new elections, they can be replaced by someone else who more faithfully reflects their will.

r2600583502Finally, the suppression of the standing army and its replacement by a system of militias, that is the “people in arms”, guarantees that the army will not be used against the people, but rather would be at their service. Despite the fact that Venezuela has gone to some lengths in purging the armed forces of counter-revolutionary elements (many abandoned the institution after the fracas of the Altamira Square movement in December 2002), the loyalty of officers and commanders to the revolution cannot be taken for granted. We have seen high ranking officers joining the counter-revolution (like general Baduel) and even recently a coup plot was thwarted which involved officers of the Air Force and others.

Expropriate the oligarchy and imperialism

In the field of the economy, as Chavez explained clearly in the Socialist Fatherland Plan, Venezuela is still dominated by the capitalist system. Despite having recovered control of the oil company PDVSA and with some strategic sectors of the economy in the hands of the state (in some cases through nationalisations or re-nationalisations), the Venezuelan capitalist class and the multinationals still hold key levers of the economy. Amongst them, the majority of banking and insurance companies, the majority of the manufacturing industry, production and distribution of food products, etc.

Furthermore, this is a particularly parasitical, rent-seeking and pro-imperialist bourgeoisie. It increases its wealth mainly on the basis of open theft, speculation, black marketeering, overpricing, smuggling, cadivismo (foreign exchange fraud). Instead of reinvesting its profits in developing the country’s productive capacity, it carries out a strike of investments and takes its capital to New York, London, Miami, Panama or Bogotá.

For many years the Bolivarian government has made repeated appeals to the Venezuelan businessmen to invest and play a productive role. None have been heeded. The bourgeoisie cannot reconcile itself with the revolution as long as it is a revolution. What pushes the bourgeoisie en bloc to oppose the Bolivarian revolution is precisely the fact that the revolution is a threat to its power, privileges and property. A capitalist will not invest in upgrading machinery if he is not sure whether tomorrow “his” workers will not decide to organise a revolutionary trade union, demand their rights and, as part of their struggle, set up a workers’ council and implement measures of workers’ control. If on top of this, the workers are encouraged by statements by the President in favour of workers’ control and previous decisions to nationalise companies when the workers demanded it (SIDOR, Inveval, Invepal, etc), it is clear for the capitalist that this is not a “business-friendly” environment in which to conduct his affairs.

On the other hand, all attempts to regulate the capitalist market in order to protect the interests of working people, particularly the measures of control implemented since 2003, after the defeat of the bosses’ lockout and oil sabotage, have reached their limits. Experience has shown that the capitalist “free market” cannot be regulated. The capitalist class has responded to price controls with sabotage, hoarding, stopping production or diverting production to other non-regulated items, smuggling, black marketeering, etc.

The capitalist class has responded to foreign exchange controls with a flight of capital, the Cadivi fraud (creating fake companies in order to get hard currency at preferential prices, importing containers of junk and passing them off as parts for production, etc), overpricing, creating an extremely lucrative black market for dollars and euros, etc.

In the recent meetings between the government and the employers, the so-called “economic peace roundtables”, the capitalists made clear what their demands are: liberalisation of prices, a free floating foreign exchange rate, the end of the ban on mass layoffs and the “flexibilisation” of Chavez’s Labour Law. That is, to put an end to all the measures which the revolution implemented to defend working people, so that the capitalists can exploit the labour force without any hindrance.

If the Bolivarian government makes significant concessions in this field, this will have the effects of: 1) the capitalists will feel emboldened and demand more concessions; 2) the working people will pay the price, leading to demoralisation, demobilisation, moods of scepticism and apathy towards the revolution. That would be a deadly threat to the very existence of the Bolivarian revolution.

In fact, it is not difficult to diagnose the situation. While the revolution is alive and maintains its dynamic, the oligarchy will see it as a threat. As long as the oligarchy continues to control key levers of the economy, it will use them to sabotage the economy. The general interests of the majority of the population are in direct conflict with the particular interests of a small minority of owners of the means of production (industry, banking and the land).

From this we can draw the conclusion that the only solution which can benefit the majority of the population is precisely the expropriation of the oligarchy. Lenin stressed, referring to the abolition of the bourgeois state that these measures “concern the reorganization of the state, the purely political reorganization of society; but, of course, they acquire their full meaning and significance only in connection with the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ either being accomplished or in preparation, i.e., with the transformation of capitalist private ownership of the means of production into social ownership.” (Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917).

In fact, the expropriation of the big capitalists is not only a necessary measure in order to put production at the service of society, but in the case of Venezuela it is also a basic measure of democratic justice. A list has been published of the 300 or 400 people who signed the attendance sheet at the swearing in of coup president Pedro Carmona (“the brief”). Most of them have never been put on trial for their participation in the coup. These are people who illegally violated the democratic will of the majority. If the government were to expropriate their landed estates, companies and banks, capitalism would be dealt a death blow in Venezuela.

In any revolution the question of property is crucial. We are referring, of course, to the property of the large-scale means of production, not the individual property of one’s car, flat or corner shop. The French revolutionary Saint-Just, quoted above, said: “The revolution drives us to recognise the principle that one who has shown himself to be the enemy of his country cannot be a property owner in it.” (Saint-Just, 1794).

In Venezuela itself, the revolutionary “general of free men”, Ezequiel Zamora stated emphatically: “The property of the people shall be respected, it is sacred. What has to be sequestrated are the assets of the rich, because with them they wage war on the people; we must leave them in their underpants”. And this is precisely what we are arguing for. If the Polar company trucks were used to block the roads and streets during the guarimba riots in 2004, if Polar controls the production of maize flour and uses that control in order to hoard, hide production and sabotage the distribution of this and other staple goods, the solution is simple: “expropiese esa vaina” (“let that thing be expropriated”) in the plain creole language president Chavez used to talk in.

Are the conditions ripe?

Why have these measures not been implemented yet? Clearly, there are some who are against. Within the Bolivarian movement there are those who declare themselves to be “socialists” because that is what the President said, but in reality they are mere social democrats, who believe that it is possible to reform the capitalist system, to smooth over some of its rougher edges and make it in some way “nice” or more “humane”. President Chavez already answered sharply these arguments when he said: “It is not possible to have capitalism with a human face, it would be like Dracula walking in daylight, such a thing does not exist”.

There are others who oppose bold socialist revolutionary measures by using another argument: Conditions in Venezuela are not ripe; we would like to move towards socialism, but it is not possible. In his recent book “The Political Economy of the Transition to Socialism”, comrade Jesús Farías develops this argument:

“We can say without fear of being mistaken, that one of the main obstacles for a more accelerated development of the social transformations in the country lies in the organisational, political and ideological weakness of the working class, unable to play today its role as the main motor force of social progress”.

He follows on from this by warning against the temptation to go “too fast”: “Impatience, ignorance of reality, a mistaken appraisal of the situation might rush changes we are not ready for, either because we are not yet able to manage or because they can generate contradictions leading to great destabilisation, greater than our capacity to control them.”

From these premises, Jesús Farías proposes a prolonged period of coexistence of the state sector of the economy with the private sector:

“However, as long as the socialist economy is unable to play the decisive role in national development, we cannot ignore the private sector. This is of crucial importance, as the capitalist sector of the economy will live side by side with the socialist sector for a long period of time.

“We must explain that while the State will not promote capitalist development, it will have to take into account the presence of the private sector in formulating state policies. Without being subordinate to the logic of capitalism, it will have to formulate policies aimed at improving its performance, amongst those the need to stimulate productive activity, overcoming its dominant parasitical features.”

que comunismo - Frente de Trabajadores jan 25What is being proposed, in essence, is that the state should encourage the capitalists so that they are no longer parasitical. We think that this line of argument is false on several counts:

  1. The working class and the broadest masses of the poor and working people have shown over and over again their capacity and level of consciousness, saving the revolution at all key moments.

  2. Furthermore, the level of consciousness of the working class is not raised if the bureaucracy systematically blocks its revolutionary initiative, destroying workers’ control, preventing the development of workers’ councils, etc.

  3. Rather than the danger of impatience, the Bolivarian revolution is facing the danger that the patience of the masses may run out, faced with a revolution which has not been completed and which does not take decisive action against its enemies. This would then give way to demoralisation and apathy amongst layers of the masses, inevitably preparing the ground for a victory of the counter-revolution.

  4. The capitalists do not invest unless they are guaranteed a certain rate of profit. The very existence of the revolution is a threat to the capitalists’ rate of profit. No state policy will stimulate productive investment in the private sector (unless we are talking of a policy which brings the revolution to a complete halt).

There is no doubt that the implementation of the measures we propose, the dismantling of the bourgeois state and the expropriation of private property of the means of production, would be faced with relentless opposition by the oligarchy and imperialism “generating contradictions leading to great destabilisation”. This is inevitable and furthermore it has already happened on countless occasions over the last sixteen years.

What needs to be done is to create the conditions to be able to counter such destabilisation. First of all, the revolutionary leadership must explain the situation clearly to the masses. A wide-ranging discussion of an enabling law linking the concrete and immediate problems of the masses (scarcity, inflation) with the expropriation of the oligarchy would be met with enthusiasm. This should be accompanied by a campaign of mass agitation in the neighbourhoods, factories and universities, leading to the setting up of Committees for the Defence of the Revolution and Workers’ Control Committees, to counter the inevitable sabotage with which the capitalists would respond to such measures. Only the revolutionary mobilisation of the working people can guarantee the implementation of revolutionary legislation.

Revolutionary mobilisation in defence of bold measures against the oligarchy would generate enthusiasm beyond the borders of Venezuela, helping to raise the necessary movement to defend the revolution also from its foreign enemies. In the final analysis, the Bolivarian revolution can only be victorious if it is completed with the abolition of capitalism and then spreads beyond its borders.

The French revolutionary Hébert put it in a sharp and clear manner: “The moderates have buried more victims than those that fell before the steel of our enemies. Nothing is more harmful in a revolution than half measures.”