Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 15, 2007

Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution, part one

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Some observers see in Dr. Castro a tropical Kerensky, a democratically-minded but naïve man who is unwittingly preparing the path for a Communist take-over. But this judgment appears to be greatly exaggerated.

Tad Szulc, N.Y. Times, July 26, 1959

Doug Henwood: So this is what he [Hugo Chavez] means by 21st century socialism?

Tariq Ali: Yeah, that’s what he means. It is left social democratic reforms. And he has said that to me a number of times that we are not living in an epoch of proletarian revolution. It is just crazy to think you can just jump over everything and do that.

Full interview

What was also new was that Chavez was reading deeply about socialism. Indeed, in that same Paraguay speech, he revealed (as he had on Alo Presidente a week earlier) that he was studying Istvan Meszaros’s Beyond Capital (“a book of thousand and hundred and so many pages”) and that Fidel Castro was reading a copy he had sent him. The immediate result would soon be clear. On the Alo Presidente program of July 17, Chavez read his nocturnal notes on the book from May 18, two months earlier. There, under the heading “Transition to socialism, heading for socialism,” appeared a phrase that triggered Chavez’s imagination: “The Point of Archimedes, this expression taken from the wonderful book of Istvan Meszaros, a communal system of production and of consumption—that is what we are creating, we know we are building this. We have to create a communal system of production and consumption, a new system…. Let us remember that Archimedes said: ‘You give me an intervention point and I will move the world.’ This is the point from which to move the world today.”

Michael Lebowitz, “Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century”, pp. 107-108

* * * * *

This begins three concluding entries in a series of articles titled “Does Socialism have a future?” (View past articles in this series.) It is more than appropriate to focus on contemporary Venezuela since it represents the most open bid for a socialist transformation since Sandinista Nicaragua. As has been the case since Karl Marx wrote about the Paris Commune, it is always easier to understand the problems of socialist revolution by looking at a living struggle rather than wrangling over abstractions.

I had originally intended to base the article on a review of Michael Lebowitz’s “Build it Now,” but decided to include Richard Gott’s “In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela,” since the two books complement each other, with Gott’s emphasis on the historical background and Lebowitz’s on broader theoretical questions. After discussing both works, I want to offer my own thoughts on how to theorize the current situation in Venezuela, particularly from the standpoint of whether the process is “from above or below,” to use the terminology associated with the state capitalist movement. Not to give too much away, it would seem that both Cuba and Venezuela today compel one to think more dialectically about terms such as “above” and “below.”

Richard Gott

Gott’s “In the Shadow of the Liberator” is an eye-opening account of Hugo Chavez’s long-standing ties to the revolutionary movement in Venezuela. As opposed to the portrait of him in the bourgeois press as some kind of bumbling populist, Gott describes someone who has been thinking deeply about the problems of social and economic transformation since an early age and who has sought to build a movement capable of making that transformation possible. Rather than a man on horseback, Hugo Chavez has much more in common with Lenin or any of the other great revolutionaries of the 20th century. It is obviously disorienting to some that his political career has been intertwined with his military career, a seeming violation of the Marxist understanding of the state as bodies of armed men. Anybody who reads Gott’s book will realize that there is no contradiction between the proletarian army and the regular army in Venezuela, or at least its class-conscious fraction.

To start with, it is essential to see Hugo Chavez’s continuity with the Venezuelan revolutionary movement through his appointments to high government positions. His minister of energy and mines is Ali Rodríguez Araque, a veteran of guerrilla struggles in the state of Falcón in the 1960s and a former leader of La Causa Radical (popularly known as Causa R), a leftist party prominent in the 1990s that was absorbed by the broader revolutionary movement that helped elect Chavez. Lino Martínez, the minister of labor, was also a former guerrilla and 6 other ex-guerrillas are currently functioning as pro-Chavez parliamentarians.

Chavez relies heavily on the advice of José Vicente Rangel and Luís Miquilena, two veterans of the Venezuela left. Rangel, his former foreign minister, was a leftist presidential candidate for the Movimiento al Socialismo on 3 occasions, without actually being a member. This party–a split from the CP in Venezuela–and Causa R were the two most important anti-capitalist formations in the years leading up to Chavez’s presidency. Indeed, it is difficult to think of Chavez being successful without their prior existence, just as it would be difficult to consider Fidel Castro coming to power without the Ortodoxo Party paving the way.

Miquilena, the president of the National Assembly when Gott’s book was published, was a leader of the bus drivers’ union in Caracas in the 1940s, and a co-founder of an anti-Stalinist Marxist party known as the Partido Comunista Venezolano Unitario in 1946. He was Chavez’s first minister of the interior and still “retains a tough Leninist streak” as Gott puts it.

In mid-1989, he helped to organize the Patriotic Front, a formation that was designed to challenge the neoliberal policies of the government that had led to an uprising in February known as the Caracazo. A rise in gasoline prices and bus fare had sparked a revolt of the poor who were based in the shanty towns ringing Caracas. Fundamentally, this uprising set into motion the chain of events that would lead to Chavez’s presidency.

Like the government that it would eventually serve as midwife to, the Patriotic Front was a joint civilian-military organization. Miquilena and his civilian comrades, including ex-guerrilla Douglas Bravo, were joined by Lieutenant William Izarra, who had just retired from the air force. It should be noted that Izarra had little in common with the rightwing Christian fundamentalists that the American Air Force academy in Colorado Springs churns out with alarming regularity. Gott describes Izarra as a “revolutionary officer with Trotskyist leanings who had studied at Harvard.”

Even the civilian members of the Patriotic Front had relationships to the military. Pedro Duno, a philosophy professor at the Universidad Central in Caracas, came from a military family and kept up his contacts with the military over the years. Given this background, it should come as no surprise that Hugo Chavez would eventually emerge as a leader of the movement that brought the Patriotic Front’s aspirations to fruition. As Duno put it:

Venezuela is a country in an advanced state of collapse, whose characteristics of corruption and pillage, incompetence, irresponsibility and cynicism, define the gloomy panorama of the present. In this bleak situation it is being suggested that the armed forces should intervene. Since it is impossible to use the force of reasonable argument, or of law, or of rights, or of the constitution, because the state and the government provide no guarantees, then it will be justifiable to use the reasonable argument of force, the ultima ratio.

The Patriotic Front would have certainly settled for somebody like General Isías Medina Angarita who ruled Venezuela during WWII. With urgent requirements for oil in the fight against the Axis powers, Medina was able to extract concessions from Washington with the support of the Communists. Oil workers, however, often found themselves opposed to the government since their right to strike was compromised by the need to sustain wartime production, just as was the case in the U.S. Acción Democrática, which would eventually overthrow Medina, took up the cause of the oil workers while supporting bourgeois development. Their alliance lasted until Chavez took office and explains their initial resistance to the government. Eventually, the oil workers would understand their true class interests and become a key component of the Bolivarian revolution.

But in one of the ironies of history, the military leader who would eventually rule Venezuela had much more in common with civilian leftists than the typical Venezuelan progressive officer. Although he was a career military man, Hugo Chavez’s ideas came out of the revolutionary left rather than any military academy.

Gott paints a portrait of a serious, highly intelligent revolutionary politician, one that is a bit different but not necessarily at odds with Chavez’s folksy, populist image. From the very beginning, Chavez was consumed with the need to link up with ordinary working people and those in the informal economy. He developed a speaking style that was very much in tune with their popular culture and the grass roots Church, although as should be obvious from the reference to Mezsaros that serves as an epigraph to this article, he was just as capable of engaging with Marxist intellectuals.

In 1974, at the age of 20, Hugo Chavez traveled to Peru as part of a military delegation where he witnessed the leftwing military government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado in power. Alvarado was supported by leftist parties and embarked on wide-ranging reforms. This inspired him to start a clandestine revolutionary group three years later called the Liberation Army of the Venezuelan People. This would serve as the nucleus of a progressive movement in the military that would follow Velasco’s example. But for most of the 1970s, Chavez and like-minded officers were mostly involved in discussions rather than action.

They continued reaching out to other officers in the 1980s, but found themselves more and more coming under the influence of the civilian left that they had encountered on the campus of the Universidad Central in Caracas, where they took courses in social science assigned by the military and found themselves rubbing shoulders with former guerrillas.

After an unsuccessful coup attempt in February 1992, Chavez was sent to Yare Prison. Just like Fidel Castro’s imprisonment after the unsuccessful raid on Moncada, Chavez began making new plans for the seizure of power from behind bars. For the next two years, the political mood began to change radically in Venezuela. The ruling party began to fall apart at the seams, while leftist coalitions like Convergencia (which included Movimiento al Socialismo) and parties like Causa R began to grow rapidly. From within his prison cell, Chavez began to reach out to them. He did draw the line, however, when it came to ultraleftists like Bandera Roja that claimed to be the inheritor of the mantle of the guerrillas of the earlier period. Chavez never had much time for such ultraleftists:

Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries. I have never talked for more than five minutes with a single leader of Bandera Roja.

Causa R was established in the early 1970s by Alfredo Maneiro, a guerrilla fighter in the CP from the previous decade. It transformed itself into Patria Para Todos (PPT) in 1997, a key element of Chavez’s ruling coalition. The PPT has furnished Chavez and his ministers with many of their key ideas. Maneiro had new ideas about how revolutionaries should organize themselves. Historian Margarita López Maya describes it as follows:

He said it was necessary both to create a political framework for the extraordinary and spontaneous mobilizing capacity of the masses, and to participate in the infinite and varied forms of a popular movement; but this had to be done in the firm belief that the masses themselves would decide on their own political direction. Instead of starting with a given political structure, it was important to trust in the capacity of the popular movement to take on the task of producing a new leadership from within its ranks.

Not only does this sound like “socialism from below,” it also sounds very much like how the revolution is unfolding in Venezuela. The paradox, of course, lies in the fact that such a political and organizational paradigm is associated with a movement launched by a career military officer. It is understandable that those who are uncomfortable with paradoxes will want to retreat into cozy little schemas that put them at the center of the political universe.

I first became aware of Causa R in an article written by Peter Camejo titled “Return to Materialism,” in which he urges the Australian Democratic Socialist Party to reconsider the party-building model commonly referred to as “Leninist”. Peter suggests that the Venezuelan approach might make more sense:

The preamble [of the DSP’s program] also makes a prediction of total demise unless the kind of structure referred to as Leninist (incorrectly) is adopted and followed. The preamble says the DSP would degenerate and no longer be a coherent organization.

We should give this some careful thought. Causa R in Venezuela does not follow any of this. They act precisely in the manner criticized by the DSP. Yet Causa R has not degenerated or collapsed. Instead they have gone from 20 members to tens of thousands directly in the leadership of major industrial unions, have the support of millions, precisely among the poorest Venezuelans and its industrial working class.

Does that mean Causa R, and what it advocates is right for Australia, or even Venezuela? That is not necessarily the case. Will they be able to go beyond their present gains with the organizational methods they have used up to now? That’s a difficult questions to answer, but my point is we should drop this arrogance about the “proven Leninist principles of organization”, meaning the structure that Cannon developed in the United States.

The only thing missing from Peter’s article, of course, is the final outcome of Causa R, which was integration into the electoral formation that succeeded in electing Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s election represents a significant challenge not only to dogmatic assumptions about “Leninism” but also what it means to be a socialist in the 21st century. We can thank Michael Lebowitz for grappling with this question in “Build It Now,” the subject of my next post.


  1. Look forward to reading part two.

    I read Camejo’s piece and thought that it perhaps took aim at too many strawmen, like the Posadaists, and also presented an inaccurate picture of the progress of the Alliance Party of NZ. The story of the Alliance in the years since Camejo’s text was written, and the story of similar groups in other countries like the Italian PRC, suggests that he might have to rethink some of the more sanguine passages in his essay.

    I agree completely that we need to translate and study the texts of the Venezuelan revolutionary tradition, including La Causa R. It’s a pity MIA can’t become a focus for such a job.

    Comment by Scott — April 16, 2007 @ 4:53 am

  2. PS: this discussion might interest you Louis:
    Late Marx on the Russian commune, Venezuela today, and East Timor.

    Comment by Scott — April 16, 2007 @ 4:55 am

  3. Hey Louis, this is an interesting post. I linked to it on my blog.

    Just wanted to let you know that, despite his long and illustrious career of leftist militancy, Luis Michilena broke with Chavez in 2002 and joined the forces of reaction. A real pity.

    Comment by Justin Delacour — April 19, 2007 @ 2:10 am

  4. […] society. You can find the history of this process in Richard Gott’s book on Hugo Chavez that I wrote about in 2007. Here’s a relevant excerpt from my […]

    Pingback by Des Derwin on the United Left Alliance in Ireland « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 24, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

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