[OPE-L] Interview with Mike L: Challenges for Venezuela's Revolution

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Mon Nov 13 2006 - 11:19:43 EST

     Interview with Michael Lebowitz

    Challenges for Venezuela's Revolution

Interview with Michael Lebowitz, a director of the Centro
Internacional Miranda (CIM) and author of several books on
Marxism and socialism, including his newly published Build
it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-first Century.

  By: Coral Wynter and Jim McIlroy - Green Left Weekly

Michael Lebowitz is a director of the Centro Internacional
Miranda (CIM), a Caracas-based foundation for analysis and
discussion of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution; professor
emeritus of the department of economics at Simon Fraser
University, Canada; and author of several books on Marxism
and socialism, including his newly published Build it Now:
Socialism for the Twenty-first Century. He spoke to Green
Left Weekly’s Coral Wynter and Jim McIlroy about the
unfolding revolution in Venezuela.

“There is a fascinating process happening here”, Lebowitz
explained. “The process began with the [1998] election of
[President Hugo] Chavez, but took significant form with the
establishment of the [Bolivarian] constitution [in 1999].
There are enormously unique elements in this constitution:
in particular, the focus on human development, the focus on
the full development of everyone’s personality, and the
clear recognition that this can only occur through

“Only through meaningful practice in struggle are people
able to develop themselves: these are not just the
abstractions of the constitution, but there are concrete
references to self-management, self-government, these kinds
of institutions.

“The constitution itself, however, was a contradictory
document. At the same time as you had these aspects, you
also had the elements of support for private interests,
private capital, the maintenance of the independence of the
central bank and so on. So, it was a snapshot at that point
of the stage of consciousness, and of the coalitions that
had emerged at that time.

“Which way it would have gone is unclear to me. But, as
Marx explained, slaveholder revolts put the sword in the
hand of the social revolution, so it moves faster as a
result. That’s precisely what happened in Venezuela, with
the opposition [from the right wing] to the laws that would
put some teeth into the process [of implementing] the

“Then there was the [April 2002] coup, which was reversed
relatively quickly, and even more important was the bosses’
lockout, which went on for months [from December 2002 to
February 2003]. The consciousness of people expanded
enormously in that period, even more so than at the time of
the coup and reversal of the coup, because that happened so
fast. That longer period [of the lockout meant] coming
together and struggling together, with new groups emerging.

“So the revolution began to move significantly forward at
that time, after those developments in 2002 and early 2003.
And the kinds of things that Chavez started to talk about
then, the social economy, meant that it wasn’t a gigantic
leap when he began to talk about socialism, because he had
already been saying those kinds of things about the social
economy. But it was important because, when he began to
talk about socialism, it was a whole process of beginning
to change the consciousness of people. That’s the role
Chavez plays, as teacher and leader, in terms of developing
the consciousness of the masses.

Chavez and Chavistas

“One of the problems, of course, is that there is a gap
between the promises and the rhetoric and what is actually
realised in practice. Partly that gap is the result of the
state that Chavez inherited, a state that was filled with
people on a clientalistic basis, by the old regime, by the
Fourth Republic.

“Another part, though, is that all the supporters of Chavez
are not necessarily in agreement with the socialist
direction. In the concluding chapter of my new book, one of
the things I talk about is that there is significant
opposition within the Chavez camp to the advance of the
revolutionary process. Some people talk about Chavism
without Chavez. Far more significant is the group of people
who want Chavez without socialism; who don’t want to see
self-management and co-management within the enterprises;
who don’t want to see communities making decisions at the
local level; who want to retain the power to make decisions
from above, both because of their own economic interests —
and corruption is a major problem here, it is part of the
tradition — but also because they don’t want to lose the
power to engage in clientelism.

“The Chavez parties are engaged in this sort of activity —
they want credit for everything; they want to engage in
these activities, to make the decisions. So, you have this
tension, between people in the local communities and the
Chavez parties, the functionaries, who want the power and
control within the communities — thinking, like so many
people on the left, that if we don’t have the power,
everything will go wrong. And that is precisely contrary to
the conceptions in the constitution, which talk about the
fact that people develop through their own activity.

“Rosa Luxemburg said the working class demands the right to
make its own mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history.
If they’re going to be prevented from making mistakes, you
won’t have the continuing advance of the revolutionary

“This is a tension right now, which is reflected in the
current [presidential] election campaign. If we remember
the [2003-04] referendum campaign [an opposition attempt to
use the provisions of the new constitution to hold a
referendum on whether Chavez’s term should end prematurely
and a new election be called], Chavez had turned first to
the Commando Ayacucho, bringing together the parties and
the party leaderships to conduct the campaign against the
opposition before the signatures were actually achieved.
And the way they functioned was by making grand speeches,
macho speeches, and did very little at the grassroots. They
were completely lost, they were ineffective.

“The opposition did get the signatures. The response from
the parties was, well, it’s a fraud, don’t go with this.
Chavez had better sense. He concluded it was necessary to
accept those signatures, take on the referendum campaign,
and turn it into a positive thing. He then went around the
parties to create Commando Maisanto. The leadership was all
picked from civil society, rather than the parties. He went
to the people in the neighborhoods, formed local
committees. It was a struggle for the parties to figure
out, where do we fit into this process.”

Organising the grassroots

“In this current election campaign”, Lebowitz continued,
“one of the things that has happened is that it has
returned to the Commando Ayacucho concept. It’s back to the
parties at the top making the decisions, organising
everything. That is a concern that I have.”

Most opinion polls show that Chavez has a crushing lead
over right-wing candidate Manuel Rosales, the governor of
the state of Zulia, in the presidential election campaign.
Lebowitz said his sense is that it would be very difficult
for Rosales to defeat Chavez “but you never know what
imperialism has planned”.

“I’m sure they have lots of plans”, he explained. “One of
those may be to have Rosales withdraw to discredit the
process. They are probably sitting in back rooms on a daily
basis [discussing this].

“One of the options that was written about in Green Left
Weekly was building on Rosales’s campaign to create a
process of separation, separatism [in Zulia]. Chavez is
very conscious of that, and will throw a lot of resources
into Zulia, to keep those [opposition vote] numbers down.
It’s certainly seen as a critical place for the electoral
struggle. But anything is possible. Vigilance is

Lebowitz described the election as “crucial”, adding that
“one of the critical questions is what way will the
election campaign be carried out”. “There needs to be a
mandate for the revolution to proceed. Everywhere, you hear
people say that 2007 is going to be a qualitative
difference, and how it will [signify] the deepening of
socialism. If these questions of socialism are raised
increasingly in this campaign, then that will create the
conditions for a significant advance next year.”

On September 9 Chavez called for the creation of a “great
party of the Bolivarian revolution” to unite the groups
that support the revolutionary process in Venezuela.
Lebowitz believes that the proposal for a “unique party” is
a good one in principle, “but it depends on its content”.

“If its content is just more of the same [an amalgam of the
existing parties], it will in fact be a way of reducing
democracy from below. If its content is going to be one
that strengthens people within the communities for the
ability to struggle, and also strengthens the ability of
people to organise in the state sectors, where there has
been an incredible campaign against co-management, then it
[can be positive]. If it doesn’t strengthen people from
below, the unique party will be a blockage on the way to
revolutionary change, to socialism, rather than an advance.

“That is something I discussed about in my book, which
talks about the need for a revolutionary party that can
unify those people in the communities and the workplaces,
to create people power from below.”

GLW asked Lebowitz about the role that organisations
created as part of the Bolivarian revolution — the social
missions, the Communal Councils — have played in the
revolutionary process.

“I wouldn’t lump them all together”, he replied. “The
missions command enormous loyalty from the people. But all
the missions aren’t the same. Health, education, the food
mission Mercal, those have been very successful. Mission
Vuelvan Caras [a cooperatives-based training and employment
mission], though, is another question. It is not clear
whether it’s delivering on its promises. There has been
some disappointment, and pressure on the government to move

“I look at these kinds of institutions, and say, this is
what is unique about the [Venezuelan] process. There is a
process whereby people are developing their right to make
decisions, and it’s not easy to do that in any country. But
people have been poor, and apathy has been part of the
pattern. So, it is exciting to see the awakening of people,
and their sense of ‘this is our right, to go and demand
this’. That is the future of the revolution. The question
is, will it be nurtured, or will it be cut off?

Revolutionary democracy

“I gave a talk recently to a meeting in Vancouver. There
was an Iranian militant who said that it was like this in
the early days of the Iranian revolution. We had these
factory committees, he said. We worked closely with the
communities, but it didn’t last. There were all these
processes set in motion, but it was cut off. I said, it was
similar in Cuba. In the early days of the revolution, there
were these workers’ committees in the factories, there was
a sense of active workers’ power …

“These things can be part of the fervor of the early days
of a revolution. The problem is how do you institutionalise
them, how can you create the means by which they can, in
fact, not be transitory? Things like the Communal Councils
are extremely important, because they institutionalise
something here that is not present elsewhere. If they can
work, if they can get, for example, the money from those
who have it for their own projects, then you can achieve a
symbol for revolutions everywhere.

“In Cuba, there is a process where there are neighbourhood
committees, there are local councils, but their power is
really limited. One of the things I hope that the
Venezuelan revolution can succeed in is to stimulate the
possibilities in Cuba as well. This is a real dialectic,
which is very healthy.”

Chavez has declared the Bolivarian revolution’s goal to
construct a “socialism of the 21st century”. Lebowitz
explained, “One of the things that Chavez has been very
good at in his statements on this is that we are not going
to repeat the [previous] process. We don’t want to worship
machines, the state; we want a humanistic socialism that
starts from human beings, and that’s what the constitution
is saying. I think that those are central characteristics.


“The link between socialism and democracy is an ideal that
is being pursued here. And that means democracy, not just
as, every four years you vote, and not as a form, but
democracy as practice. Democracy as a process by which
people take control over their lives, make collective
decisions at every level of their societies. And I think
that is a unique conception.

“Compare Yugoslavia [under Josip Broz Tito]. For a whole
period, you had the process of self-management in the
enterprises, functioning within the market, competing
against each other, but no sense of responsibility for a
community. Everything was self-interest there [in

“That is something Chavez is very sensitive to. I know he´s
been very interested in this. We talked about the problem of
Yugoslavia, and the problem of self-interest there. That is
why he has insisted on a focus, not on exchange of
commodities, but on a process in which, as Marxists like
Istvan Meszaros [author of Socialism or Barbarism: From the
‘American Century’ to the Crossroads and Beyond Capital:
Toward a Theory of Transition] talk about, there is
exchange of human activity based on communal needs and

“Chavez talks about the need to create a new socialist
morality — socialist consciousness, which is based on
solidarity. That’s why he has been focusing on the Empresas
de Produccion Social [Enterprises of Social Production], the
EPSs. The idea is that these would be enterprises that would
be oriented to satisfying people’s needs. That was his
conception of it.

“And why not cooperatives? Isn’t that sufficient? Because
cooperatives are self-interested — collections of producers
who have their own goals. And what Chavez was stressing was
the need for these groupings of people to internalise their
responsibility to the communities in which they function.

“Now, with the EPSs, again there’s always this gap between
the conception and the way in which that conception is
realised. The way the EPSs are going right now is horrible.
They’re not realising this conception … they’re creating
institutions that see their responsibility to the community
as [providing] 10% of their income. We call that taxes! So,
that shows the possibility of the perversion, the
distortion of the concept.

“There are a lot of potential problems. And, to quote my
book, in describing the situation before the revolution,
before the election of Chavez, talking about the
corruption, clientelism, and bureaucracy of the state, it
stated that Venezuela ‘required an economic revolution, a
political revolution and a cultural revolution’. And, as I
go on to say later, the economic revolution is underway,
but the political revolution has only just begun. [The
political revolution] made a leap forward with the
constitution, but it requires a real transformation of the

“And, furthermore, the cultural revolution, which requires
a strong attack on corruption and clientelism, has hardly
begun. So, without those other two, the revolution cannot
help but be deformed. That is the central question.

“People keep saying, the problem in Venezuela is, how can
you talk about socialism there because they still have
private capital, private ownership of the media, private
banks, etc. That is not the problem of the Venezuelan
revolution. The problem of the Venezuelan revolution is
from within. It’s whether it will be deformed by people
around Chavez.”

[Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-first Century is
published by Monthly Review Press.]

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