Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 29, 2007

Ultraleft counter-revolutionaries in Venezuela

Filed under: state capitalism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

On November 24th the Wall Street Journal ran an article that was highly flattering to Stalin–Ivan Stalin González, that is. Stalin (he prefers being called by this name) is the leader of the privileged university students who are on the front-lines opposing the proposed constitutional reforms that would make the government more directly accountable to the people beginning with an end to term limits.

Stalin’s background would be familiar to those who run into his counterparts in the radical movement in their own countries:

Mr. Chávez’s description also hardly fits Mr. González. The 27-year-old, sixth-year law student grew up in a poor household that dreamed of a Communist Venezuela. His father, a print-machine operator, was a high-ranking member of the Bandera Roja, or Red Flag, a hard-line Marxist-Leninist party that maintained a guerrilla force until as recently as the mid-1990s. Its members revered Josef Stalin as well as Albania’s xenophobic Enver Hoxha. As a boy, Mr. González remembers packing off to marches with his sisters, Dolores Engels and Ilyich, named in honor of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

As a young man, Mr. González burnished his leftist credentials, joining Marxist youth groups and following his father into the Bandera Roja. He traveled to Socialist youth conferences in Latin America.

(The WSJ article can only be read in its entirety by googling “Ivan Stalin Gonzalez” from google/news.)

Hugo Chávez described Bandera Roja thusly:

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.

Unlike the miserable ultraleft sectarians in Bandera Roja, the Marxists who have helped to elect Hugo Chávez do not see themselves on any such “holy mission.” Indeed, it is the absence of such self-aggrandizement that has so disoriented much of the left outside of Venezuela, at least those sectors of the left that still clutch to “vanguardist” illusions. While most of them are not nearly as bad as Bandera Roja, they still see Hugo Chávez as an impediment to the True Revolution that is gathering momentum at the grass roots level. In this scenario, the only thing that can save Venezuela is some kind of latter-day version of the Soviets in 1917 and a working-class revolutionary party to lead them toward a seizure of power. While Chávez’s government is a decent social democratic alternative to the neoliberal solution that the US would prefer, it falls short of their ideals–the operative word being ideal.

To his great credit, James Petras–a former ultraleft critic of Hugo Chavez–has a much better understanding of the true political stakes in Venezuela now and has repudiated the ultraleft in a Counterpunch article:

The CIA-Embassy reports internal division and recriminations among the opponents of the amendments including several defections from their ‘umbrella group’. The key and most dangerous threats to democracy raised by the Embassy memo point to their success in mobilizing the private university students (backed by top administrators) to attack key government buildings including the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council. The Embassy is especially full of praise for the ex-Maoist ‘Red Flag’ group for its violent street fighting activity. Ironically, small Trotskyist sects and their trade unionists join the ex-Maoists in opposing the constitutional amendments. The Embassy, while discarding their ‘Marxist rhetoric’, perceives their opposition as fitting in with their overall strategy.

Unfortunately, the International Socialist Organization, a sizable state-capitalist group in the US, still retains the kind of ultraleft conceptions that Petras once held.

In the latest issue of their newspaper, there’s an article on the showdown in Venezuela which basically describes three camps in Venezuela: the rightwing that is getting its marching orders from the US, a center consisting of Hugo Chávez, many of his well-meaning radical supporters plus a status-quo minded elite getting rich off the oil exports, and a genuine working-class left that shares their ideals of “revolution from below.”

One of the most cited figures from this unblemished leftwing group in the pages of Socialist Worker is a self-described Trotskyist trade union leader named Orlando Chirino:

For Orlando Chirino, a national coordinator of the National Union of Workers (UNT) labor federation, Chávez’s reforms herald the “Stalinization” of the state and state control of the labor movement “along the lines of the Cuban CTC labor federation,” he said in an interview.

Chirino, a key leader of the C-CURA class-struggle current of the factionalized UNT, is among the most prominent figures on the left to oppose the reforms. He made waves on the left when he granted an interview with a leading opposition newspaper and appeared on the platform with leaders of the CTV, the corrupt old trade union federation implicated in the 2002 coup.

Today Chirino, along with an oil workers union official, José Bodas, is a founder of a new group calling for an independent workers party.

Well, what can one say? Despite his Trotskyist bona fides, Chirino opposes the reforms alongside comrade Stalin Gonzalez. He also is cozy with the rotten newspapers and trade union that tried unsuccessfully to overthrow the democratically elected government of Venezuela. Politics makes strange bedfellows, doesn’t it?

If you read the Socialist Workers newspaper, as I do, you will be familiar by now with their split personality. They are a source of excellent analysis and information on the class struggle in the US but when it comes to Cuba and Venezuela they are–how should I put it–full of shit. For them, Cuba occupies the same place as Dante’s Inferno while Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela is a purgatory that will be rescued by the likes of Orlando Chirino. But maybe not Chirino himself since the ISO still has a shred of good sense to support the constitutional reforms even if it is only grudgingly.

In the past Orlando Chirino has been a kind of North Star for them, a source of goodness and received wisdom. In August of 2005, they had a breathless article titled “Venezuela’s left comes together” that would leave the reader with the unmistakable impression that the cavalry was coming to the rescue in Venezuela. It reported on a July 9 meeting that included Orlando Chirino’s Opción de Izquierda Revolucionaria and a student collective from the Central University of Venezuela, a bastion of counter-revolutionary resistance to Hugo Chávez today and where Stalin Gonzalez is enrolled. One can only wonder if Comrade Stalin was at this meeting hyped by the Socialist Worker newspaper as a sign of hope for Venezuela. I bet that he was.

I imagine that the odyssey of Chirino and these students to the right probably did not pique the interest of the brain trust that runs the ISO too deeply.

They must have been totally smitten with a figure like Orlando Chirino who told them:

Therefore, I think that [Chávez’s] project has a short lifespan. I’m not talking in terms of years, but rather as a historic project of a way out of the crisis and misery that capitalism offers. That model doesn’t provide a way out, and today, there isn’t the space nor is there a sector of the capitalist class that wants a decisive confrontation with imperialism.

So in less than three years, Chirino discovered that the way to decisively confront imperialism was to make common cause with its chief supporters in Venezuela. As Larry David would say on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: “Interesting, very interesting.”

Now, if I were the editor of “Socialist Worker,” I might want to try to reconcile two apparently contradictory positions. Is Chirino still a representative of the left? If so, maybe it is because he stills says that he is for a working-class revolution. But then again, so does Stalin Gonzalez. According to the WSJ:

For all his disappointment with Mr. Chávez’s brand of leftism, Mr. González still holds a candle for his revolutionary heroes. He has a signed copy of a seven-hour speech Fidel Castro delivered at the university several years ago. “I never got bored,” he says.

Apparently, being a member of the Fidel Castro fan club does not ensure that one will not lose one’s way politically.

Although it took me a while to get over my own initial skepticism toward Hugo Chávez, I never for a minute thought that ultraleftists like Orlando Chirino were some kind of revolutionary alternative. I had seen them in operation in Nicaragua in the 1980s and figured out that small groups posturing as Bolsheviks trying to wrest power from the Menshevik FSLN were more than a nuisance–they were doing the CIA’s work.

In George Black’s very fine chronicle on the Nicaraguan revolution titled “Triumph of the People”, there is a chapter on the counter-revolution that is mainly focused on the contras and their “peaceful” supporters. Within the chapter, there are also a few pages devoted to groups led by the Stalin Gonzalez’s of those times.

The most notorious of them was the Simon Bolivar Brigade, a guerrilla group composed of Latin Americans who fought alongside the FSLN. They regarded the FSLN in the same exact way that Orlando Chirino and Stalin Gonzalez regard Chavez today–as an obstacle to the full flowering of the revolution. The Brigade was led by the Socialist Workers Party in Colombia, a section of the Morenoite Fourth International that can best be described as virulently ultraleft. Considering the bad reputation of this group and a similarly named group in the US that used to be in an alliance with the Morenoites, my recommendation to aspiring Leninists worldwide is to not use this name. Of course, if you have already adopted it–like the group led by Alex Callinicos–you have my permission to continue using it.

Part of the problem dealing with the Brigade, which had embarked on a series of premature strikes and land occupations, was that it insisted on remaining armed and existing outside of the framework of the Sandinista military command.

When the FSLN sat down for a meeting with the Brigade on August 14, 1979, it found itself confronted with a demonstration of 1,000 workers who had been brought there by the Brigade in the belief that the meeting was about wages and trade union questions. After deciding that the Brigade was not serious about becoming part of the broader revolutionary process, the FSLN expelled sixty non-Nicaraguan members to Panama.

The Frente Obrero (FO) was not Trotskyist, but it posed the same kind of threat to the revolution as the Simon Bolivar Brigade. Originally a faction of the FSLN, the FO was expelled in 1972 after being implicated in a plot to assassinate the entire FSLN leadership. Fortunately, the plot failed because the FO could not recruit enough members to carry out the task. As George Black describes the FO, the kinship with Stalin Gonzalez’s Bandera Roja should be obvious:

From the early 1970s there were suspicions that the FO had close ties to Somoza’s Office of National Security (OSN). Although its ideology was not consistent, the FO’s basic orientation was towards Peking, and it held this line until the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, when it switched its allegiance to Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Towards the end of the decade, it managed to build a limited base in the working class, and had its own student movement, the Comites de Lucha Estudiantil Universitaria (University Students Fighting Committees: CLEUS).

In the early stages of the revolution, the FO proposed a government that would include bourgeois parties and themselves. Just like Stalin Gonzalez, they were adept at cloaking opportunist behavior in fire-breathing revolutionary rhetoric.

After the FSLN took power and began to concentrate on the immediate tasks of reviving an economy that had been devastated by earthquake and civil war, the FO’s newspaper demanded the ‘active sabotage of the economic plan in order to bring power back into the hands of the people’. To show that they meant business, the FO, which had far more members and influence than the Morenoites, launched a series of paralyzing strikes in the sugar refineries. In Chinandega the results were devastating. Stacked sugar cane rotted, causing the loss of a half-million cordobas per day–all in the name of socialist revolution.

Eventually the sugar refinery workers called off the strike in exchange for immediate social wage improvements, as well as government action on local health and housing problems.

The FO was determined to push on, however. When cane cutters returned to the fields, they were met by FO supporters who slashed their truck tires and threatened them with guns and machetes, just as Stalin Gonzalez’s goons did recently at the Social Work building in the Central Venezuelan University.

One cartoon in Barricada, the FSLN newspaper, depicted an FO activist floating on a cloud above a group of workers, with his head buried in a book. The caption read “Having seized political power, proceed to…” George Black said that the cartoon “summed the FO up nicely.” Too bad that it sums up some of our comrades today who decided to promote a wing of the radical movement in Venezuela that was on a collision course with the revolution.


  1. There are plenty of such fakers all over the world that you are describing. I think Engels was describing these people when he says somewhere that a whole congeries of kooks always gathers around the workers’ movement. They become invisible when the Left grows large enough. It is sort of an occupational hazard which Left can’t wish away.

    Comment by Jit — November 29, 2007 @ 5:13 pm

  2. Operation QKOPERA was a psyops from 1950 implemented by CIA. The so-called Non-Communist Left (ex-trotskyist, social democrats, leftist, artists (abstract expressionism) and liberal intellectuals joined forces through “Congress for Cultural Freedom” in fighting international “communism” – that is Marxism. This ideological warfare was one of the most successful operations of CIA – according former general John Magruder. I think we have the same shit going on in the war against Hugo Chavez.

    Comment by Rolf — November 29, 2007 @ 6:22 pm

  3. There were ultra-left counter-revolutionaries in Russia too: anyone who sided with Trotsky against Stalin. Stalin said world revolution was ultra-left and idealist nonsense. I find the parallel here with your treatment of the ISO’s positions on Venezuela and Chavez striking.

    You should at least link the article (http://www.socialistworker.org/2007-2/654/654_06_Venezuela.shtml) you are attacking Socialist Worker so people reading your critique can make up their own minds about what the ISO says. You also fail to mention Stalin Pérez, another Trotskyist the ISO has hosted at conferences in the past, who SUPPORTS the reforms and who is quoted at the end of the same article. Doing so would have seriously undermined your attempt to the link the ISO to Chirno, who you insinuate is linked to the left sects and the counter-revolutionary opposition all of whom are doing the CIA’s dirty-work there.

    Furthermore, your reference to the earlier SW article “Venezuela’s left comes together” (http://www.socialistworker.org/2005-2/552/552_10_Venezuela.shtml) is disingenuous at best and dishonest at worst. Neither Stalin–Ivan Stalin González nor the group he is part of, Red Flag, were mentioned as having attended the meeting. So what is your “bet” that Stalin González was there based on? Nothing, except the fact that he’s enrolled in the same university. By that logic, you should “bet” that every student who has been enrolled at Hunter College in the last 5-10 years was at an ISO meeting at one point or another. This is like Dick Cheney betting that members of Al-Qaeda had meetings with members of Saddam Hussein’s government simply because both were in the same country or city at the same time.

    The group from the college that did attend the meeting you mentioned is called ACTIVATE and I know nothing of their politics or whether or not Red Flag members are involved with it. Judging by this post, neither do you. At least do some research before you convict people of being guilty by association.

    From Sustar’s article it’s not clear who he agrees with more on the question of the PSUV, Pérez or Chirno, but it’s clear from the article that he does support the reforms because it offers the left the opportunity to deepen the revolution by building strong mass grassroots organizations. You say the ISO supports the reforms “grudgingly” but from the article I think its clear the support is not “grudging.” He argues quite rightly that “the reforms reflect the contradiction at the heart of Chávez’s project–an effort to initiate revolutionary change from above.” This explains both the undisputably progressive aspect of the reforms – neighborhood councils, etc – as well as the questionable aspects of it, such as strengthening Chavez’s personal control over the military hierarchy (its bourgeois hierarchy, that is) as opposed to democratizing the armed forces.

    I agree with you, someone is “full of shit.” But it’s not Lee Sustar.

    Comment by Binh — November 29, 2007 @ 8:36 pm

  4. Binh, the fact that the Socialist Worker can still take Chirino seriously condemns it. Here is what Michael Lebowitz had to say about Chirino on Marxmail:

    David [Walters] invited me to comment on his last note, where he discusses Orlando Chirino (darling of many exterior leftorgs). My only comment is that I thought for certain he would talk about the position of Chirino’s latest group (Movement for the Construction of a Party of Workers) on the constitutional reforms.

    Basically, they (a small minority current in the C-CURA tendency in the organised labour movement) have come out in opposition to the reform and cite, among other things, that the reformed constitution retains a place for private property (which is incompatible with socialism), introduces workers councils (which are anti-union), and fails to increases wages and salaries. So, they call for workers and revolutionaries to vote neither si or no but to follow a 3rd option (should be music to some ears) and spoil their vote– ie., vote NULL.

    Now, put this in the context of the referendum campaign. I circulated an article yesterday by Mike Fox in venezuelanalysis.com about the incredible lies and distortions being used against the referendum (which unfortunately are having a very significant impact). He noted: The most scandalous was an anonymous two-page spread in the country’s largest circulation newspaper, Últimas Noticias, which claimed about the Constitutional Reform:

    ‘”If you are a Mother, YOU LOSE! Because you will lose your house, your family and your children (children will belong to the state).”…

    The scare tactic against Venezuelan mothers isn’t the only piece of misinformation in the anonymous advertisement. Under the title, “Who wins and who loses,” it goes on to tell readers that under the new reform, they will lose their right to religion; that 9.5 million people will lose their job; that small, large or cooperative businesspeople will lose their “store, home, business, taxi or cooperative”; that urban, rural and mountain militias are going to replace the National Armed Forces; that students will lose their right to decide what they want to study; that campesinos are going to lose out because they won’t be owners of their own land; and that the value of the Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, is going to drop along with the value of Venezuelan homes, cars, farm lands (finca), and educational studies.’

    And Mike noted that it came out that the anonymous ad was placed by The Carabobo State Chamber of Industry (CIEC):

    ‘The CIEC is a 71 year-old organization, headquartered in the Carabobo state capital of Valencia, which groups together more than 250 businesses in the region. Among those are dozens of subsidiaries which compose literally a who’s who list of some of the largest and most powerful US corporations, including (among others): Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, Bridgestone Firestone, Goodyear, Alcoa, Shell, Pfizer, Dupont, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Kraft, Novartis, Unilever, Heinz, Johnson & Johnson, Citibank, Colgate Palmolive, DHL and Owens Illinois.’

    So, here is the question: Carabobo is the base of operations of Chirino, and the C-CURA group has been very active there. WHY AREN’T THEY ATTACKING THOSE CORPORATIONS? Why isn’t the new grouplet of Chirino demanding that these companies repudiate the lies circulated on their behalf against the constitutional reforms (instead of righteously declaring that they are for true socialism without bosses and corrupt bureaucrats)? Maybe it’s a bit hard when you oppose the reforms, too.

    Louis described the position of the ISO re Chirino as one involving ‘cognitive dissonance’, ‘sectarian stupidity’ and ‘rigid dogma’ Of course, the ISO could always distinguish itself from this pattern in Venezuela by mounting its own campaign against these US corporations. Then, again, maybe opposing the constitutional reforms because they are for true socialism is more their style.


    PS. re the uncovered ‘CIA document’ that Jim Petras (and Eva Golinger) have been talking about— having read it, colour me skeptical about its legitimacy.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 29, 2007 @ 8:45 pm

  5. Binh, the fact that the Socialist Worker can still take Chirino seriously condemns it.

    Like it or not, he’s an elected leader and he must have a base of constituents (i.e. workers) within C-CURA who agree with him. Are you saying that those workers are also condemned and counter-revolutionary for backing Chirino?

    Also, I notice you still haven’t responded to anything other than Chirino’s name from my post. What about Pérez or the other Trotskyists (I don’t think they are state-caps, by the way) who back the reforms? Are they too counter-revolutionary because they are critical of Chavez and believe in the political independence of the working class?

    Comment by Binh — November 29, 2007 @ 9:03 pm

  6. “Are you saying that those workers are also condemned and counter-revolutionary for backing Chirino?”

    Of course. So were the oil workers who went out on strike a few years ago. Or the truck drivers who struck against Allende. Being a worker does not excuse you from standing up to the judgement of history.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 29, 2007 @ 9:08 pm

  7. Really good post.

    Funny how the revolutionaries, don’t recognize a revolutionary situation.

    Hugo Chavez despite what he says, is not a Marxist. He did give an opening for real change. Without him there will be no more occupations of unoccupied factories, healthcare will be privatized. Education will only be for the elite.

    Hugo Chavez raised the expectations of the working class. He started a momentum toward a new society.

    If Chavez loses this weekend, it’ll be too late. The ultraleft will blame the CIA, and raise self criticism as to why they should have supported Chavez.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — November 29, 2007 @ 11:37 pm

  8. “The most notorious of them was the Simon Bolivar Brigade, a guerrilla group composed of Latin Americans who fought alongside the FSLN…Part of the problem dealing with the Brigade, which had embarked on a series of premature strikes and land occupations, was that it insisted on remaining armed and existing outside of the framework of the Sandinista military command.”

    Was this a problem with the Brigade, or a problem with the Sandinista military command? What kind of socialist revolution are you running when an organized group of workers who want socialism has to disarm and submit themselves to some centralized military authority?

    Of course, none of this applies to the Brigade. It’s almost too much credit to refer to them as “Latin Americans who fought alongside the FSLN”. They were Latin Americans who fought alongside the FSLN, but they were few in number in Nicaragua at that time and they were very much late-comers to the FLSN/Somoza battle. They were foreign middle-class Trotskyists who did almost nothing during the revolution, and mostly came in after the revolution to work against the revolution. In this context they were confronted by the FSLN, as they should have been. You didn’t describe it in this manner however.

    I can’t think of a historical case where some centralized left authority going around the country disarming progressive-leaning anti-imperialist workers has ever lead to anything other than disaster ultimately (PCI after World War II, Sinn Fein etc.)

    Comment by Paul Pot — December 1, 2007 @ 12:26 am

  9. If you are looking for ulte-left counterrevolutionaries, you need look no further than WSWS.

    Bill van Auken, in one of his most revealing articles, describes Chavez a a dictator:

    Comment by Brian — December 1, 2007 @ 1:20 am

  10. “Are you saying that those workers are also condemned and counter-revolutionary for backing Chirino?”

    Of course. So were the oil workers who went out on strike a few years ago. Or the truck drivers who struck against Allende. Being a worker does not excuse you from standing up to the judgement of history.

    I guess the 51% who voted against the referendum and all those from the Chavez camp who abstained are also now condemned in the eyes of history?

    Comment by Binh — December 5, 2007 @ 4:22 am

  11. “I guess the 51% who voted against the referendum and all those from the Chavez camp who abstained are also now condemned in the eyes of history?”

    This is personalizing things. It is better simply to say that the vote against the new constitution was counter-revolutionary, as the gloating from the bourgeois media and George W. Bush would indicate. Whether ordinary workers who voted against the changes should be characterized as “counter-revolutionary” misses the point. There are referenda on the ballot in the US all the time that have racist implications, especially those directed against undocumented workers. Some ill-informed workers might vote for these referenda without being true racists, but the people who draft the referenda and organize to see them pass *are* racists.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 5, 2007 @ 2:27 pm

  12. This is personalizing things.

    You personalized things when you took a page from Cheney’s book and attempted to lump Orlando Chirno and the ISO (which supported the referendum!) into the same counter-revolutionary camp as Bandera Roja and the CIA. I’m just asking you to extend the logic of your analysis to include the Chavistas who voted against or abstained from the vote.

    I await your analysis as to why the vote failed. Will you put all the blame the CIA and the counter-revolution, or did Chavez make a mistake trying to put so many measures together into one vote?

    Comment by Binh — December 7, 2007 @ 6:07 pm

  13. I don’t think that Orlando Chirino was a counter-revolutionary when the ISO was writing all those flattering articles about him. He seems to have lost his way in recent months, as did Heinz Dietrich–an occasional contributor to MRZine. I doubt that the Socialist Workers newspaper will lionize Chirino in the future as it did in the past but I am sure that it will continue to pin its hopes on small self-declared vanguard formations, which, while making correct points about weaknesses in the PSUV, remain clueless about constructing an alternative.

    As far as Chavistas “who voted against or abstained from the vote”, I am not sure who you are talking about. A “Chavista” could mean any slum dweller who voted for Chavez in the past or it could mean Heinz Dietrich and Orlando Chirino. I obviously view them differently. As far as why the measures failed, people much more expert than me have written about this and I agree with them–especially about the business of cobbling too many measures together.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 7, 2007 @ 6:30 pm

  14. I notice that your tag for this post is “state capitalism”. I do hope you realize that that is laughably impossible and definitionally self-refuting.

    Comment by Capitalism — December 11, 2007 @ 7:12 am

  15. “So, here is the question: Carabobo is the base of operations of Chirino, and the C-CURA group has been very active there. WHY AREN’T THEY ATTACKING THOSE CORPORATIONS?”

    Are you serious, Louis? The fact that you haven´t read anything on C-CURA condemning US corporations.. means they are SUPPORTING US corporations?
    Brilliant argument.

    Ask yourself: Why are there more than 250 capitalist companies in the Carabobo region in the first place? Why is there capitalism in all regions, everywhere in Venezuela today? Are you going to blame Chirino for that as well?

    “So, here is the question: Venezuela has many foreign companies operating in their country. Chávez and MVR have been very active there. WHY AREN´T THEY ATTACKING THOSE CORPORATIONS?”

    Comment by Janajev — February 17, 2008 @ 12:55 am

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