[OPE-L] some answers for john holloway

From: michael a. lebowitz (mlebowit@SFU.CA)
Date: Sat May 21 2005 - 16:32:49 EDT

Dear John,
         As it happens, I'm able to respond to you sooner than I
anticipated. By no means for the first time and certainly not for the last,
the meeting that was to occur had to be rescheduled. (Not a disaster-- more
time to think about ideas.) Let me respond to some of your questions
separately from my comments on your own answers to me--- it will make for
more compact and coherent notes, I think.
         But, as you did, first some general remarks. I must stress that I
have many concerns about what is happening here. (It's why my mantra is
pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.) You mention my
enthusiasm. Well, yes, it is wonderful to see people with hope and pride---
people who have been the excluded and now say this is our oil, our country.
The idea of building a new society is, of course, exciting and Chavez
conveys that hope and that possibility because he believes in it himself.
But, that society doesn't drop from the sky. We begin with a society with
enormous disparities--- in wealth, culture, education, everything. One in
which corruption and clientalism--- basically rent-seeking behaviour--- is
endemic. One in which you have a relatively small number of organised
workers (some of whom in the state sector became quite militant and
conscious in the context of opposing the process of privatisation--
including the runup to it) but, on the other hand, over half of the working
class in the informal sector. How do you create the new society in that
context? How do you avoid clientalism and corruption among the Chavists?
(I've said on a number of occasions that there is a parasite here looking
for a new host.) Answer: I think it is a constant struggle--- and, if you
are not advancing (and I think in terms of advancing in creating a new kind
of state), you are losing. And, how do you avoid the problem of an
aristocracy of labour--- of militant economism trumping solidarity? It is
important to understand that there are daily conflicts within the Chavist
camp--- the parties, the unions, the social movements--- and constant
charges of corruption (the easiest thing to charge your enemies and rivals
with--- true or not).
         So, of course, I have concerns. I think, though, the important
thing is to keep in mind that this is a process--- and that there is
nothing more certain to ensure its defeat than abstract demands for
immediacy. The demand for nationalisation of industry and banks with
workers control--- the slogan of some trotskyists here, the demand for
communism now, for abolition of the state. Madness. What determines the
speed of this process (ideally) is the development of the consciousness of
the masses. And, like it or not, key in the development of that
consciousness is leadership--- leadership which is coming from Chavez and
which is in struggle with the old society, the old state, the old order.
         Take, for example, the episode of the referendum. The struggle to
conduct the battle against the referendum initially was in the hands of the
coalition of Chavist parties (the Comando Ayacucho)-- headed up on Chavez's
suggestion by a leader of a lesser Chavist party because the factions in
the main party that Chavez created for electoral purposes (MVR) were at
each other's throats; and, they played the old games-- made their militant
macho speeches and blew it. When it was clear that the opposition had the
requisite number of signatures to trigger the referendum (to which the
instinctive reaction of many party leaders was to cheat), Chavez himself
turned to the people and called upon them to organise in small groups
(patrols) themselves to defeat the opposition in the referendum. He did
this knowing masses were out there who would respond and he was right---
the initiative didn't come from the social movements and certainly not from
the parties; and, the response was wonderful--- not only a resounding
victory but the emergence of new local leaders (so many of them women). One
proposal was to build immediately upon this momentum--- create a new
organisation based upon the patrols, a new political front (similar in many
respects in structure to the Wide Front in Uruguay). But, it didn't happen.
The parties didn't like the idea (of course, because it represented a loss
of influence), and Chavez yielded to this. Nine months later, and we are
back to internal struggles within the MVR, struggles between the MVR and
the other Chavists, etc-- not quite back to the starting point because the
chavist parties recognised that they couldn't simply appoint candidates for
parish elections from the top as in the past but had to go to internal
local primaries; however, many of those primaries were tainted through the
traditional corrupt practices, the patterns of the 4th Republic. We may be
back talking soon about the need to build the front-- but time and momentum
have been lost.
         And, time and momentum are critical. The revolution must deliver--
economically and politically. Because this is a process under attack---
both from the internal forces (parasites from within included) and also
that major enemy outside. I don't anticipate an invasion (although I don't
rule it out), and I think the-power-that-is wouldn't want to create a
martyr (although there are many continuing incidents that suggest
otherwise) but the money pouring in to support opposition forces in 'civil
society' and available to support unhappy military elements is meant to put
an end to the Bolivarian Revolution. That point should be clear in
everyone's mind. (My own guess is that there are CIA beavers busy creating
private bank accounts and a paper trail linked to Chavez and close
associates because of the importance of demoralising an aroused mass in
Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America.) No one outside is going to
protect Venezuela. What protects this process at this point is the army (to
which now will be added the new reserves--- armed people).
         Imagine trying to do this without the state! And, imagine trying
to build that pride and confidence and capacity without the leadership (at
this point, at least) of Chavez--- who, we must remember, regularly is
communicating with the masses, cheering them on to organise. (If we learn
something from Venezuela, it must be the importance of a dialectic of
leadership and masses--- this process could not advance without the energy
of the masses, and that energy in turn is linked to the encouragement it is
constantly receiving.) OK, I've definitely babbled on much more than I
expected. However, I think it is really important to leave the heavenly
abstractions and to think about the concrete. So, on to your questions.

         You said:'Clearly the struggle did not originate in the state: it
originated as a class struggle, a popular struggle against the
manifestations of capitalism. In the 1990s it clearly became focussed on
the state and the winning of state power, and the process has been
organised to a fairly large extent through the state in the last few years.
My question is how this form of organisation affects the development of the
struggle. Has it, for example, had the effect of diverting anti-capitalist
struggle into the form of anti-imperialism, a form quite compatible with
the continuation of exploitation and private ownership?'

         Even in the abstract this question seems strange to me. Why should
a focus on the state divert struggle from anti-capitalism to
anti-imperialism? Is it because the preconception is that the state as such
is part of capital and, thus, by definition its involvement must divert the
struggle away from opposition to capitalism? Concretely, of course, the
precise opposite has occurred in Venezuela. The process has moved from
opposition to neo-liberalism (which suggests that another kind of
imperialist policy might be acceptable), to attacks on capitalism (the
perverse logic of capital as such) and now to socialism (although the
definition is yet to be determined). Surely you've noticed that even from a
distance! So, how can you even pose the question?

You ask:
  'Is it possible for a state to dissolve itself into a radically different
form of organisation, or will the established practices both of state
functionaries and of the people themselves, and the integration of the
state into the global multiplicity of states and above all the global
movement of capital, not make that impossible?'

         I don't know, John. Of course, as I've noted above, there are
horrible obstacles (and not only in Venezuela) to creating the kind of
state that provides people with the space to engage in revolutionary
practice-- ie., to transform themselves in the course of transforming
circumstances. It's that self-government in the Commune that Marx talked
about as the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat at last discovered
(and which I discuss in Ch. 10 of my book). It's not easy, and we've seen
the results of failing to do that. But, there is no alternative (in
Venezuela and, I suggest, in general): (a) to seizing the state from
capital--- so capital can not use the power of its state to defeat us and
(b) to transforming that 'ready-made state machinery' into the
'self-government of the producers' (to use Marx's words) in order to create
that space for the development of new people. So, no guarantees--- except
the guarantee of struggle. But, for me, as I indicate in my critique for
Historical Materialism, the idea of changing the world without taking power
is a pipe-dream--- the opiate of the defeated and demoralised.

You ask: 'Has the Venezuelan state managed to liberate itself from the need
to secure the profitability of capital? And if it has not broken from that
need, does that mean that it necessarily promote the exploitation of labour?'

         The answer is that, of course, the Venezuelan state has not
liberated itself from capital! But that is not, as you repeatedly suggest,
because the state (any state) cannot. This, I repeat, is a revolutionary
process--- one that depends upon transforming common sense. (This idea of
process is something I find strangely missing in your book.) You must
understand that---even in its uncrystallised form, even in its association
with Christianity here--- many Chavez supporters are confused about the
talk of socialism; how to make the idea of socialism increasingly appear as
common sense is the immediate concern here. Do you demand an economic coup
d'etat to liberate the state from capital and, failing that, conclude that
the Venezuelan state (like every state) simply cannot liberate itself from
capital? In fact, there is a process underway in which a state sector not
organised on the basis of profitability as such is increasingly expanding
at the expense of the capitalist sector-- most dramatically in the Mercal,
the state markets (but new state firms are emerging both in agricultural
processing, where they are linked to cooperatives, and also, eg, in large
firms like telecommunications). Is the state promoting exploitation of
workers? It certainly continues to permit this. (Would you ban it at this
point?) But, the legislation currently being introduced in the National
Assembly on the initiative of UNT, the trade union federation, calls for
worker management in any private firm receiving any state subsidies (which,
of course, is an 'open the books' demand). Could you ask for more now?

  'And if it has broken the need to secure profitability, this presumably
can only be on the basis of the creation of an anti-capitalist form of
social organisation. Is this what's happening?'

         In the economic sphere, the combination of cooperatives and
co-managed (not in the German sense) state firms is certainly a step in
this direction; combined with vigorous local planning committees that
articulate the needs of communities (a deficiency only slowly changing), it
points in the right direction. All these things are set out in the
Constitution but realising them doesn't happen over night.

  'It seems to me that you start thinking from the state (very
understandable in your current situation) whereas we need to think from
society and from social struggle, class struggle.'

         And, it seems to me that the division that you make between state
and society comes from thinking about an Abstract State and Abstract
Society... and, certainly, Abstract Class Struggle.

         more on these matters in the comment on your answers.
Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6

Currently based in Venezuela. Can be reached at
Residencias Anauco Suites
Departamento 601
Parque Central, Zona Postal 1010, Oficina 1
Caracas, Venezuela
(58-212) 573-4111
fax: (58-212) 573-7724

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