[OPE-L] Mike L interview: "Venezuela: The Struggle After the Vote"

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Sun Dec 10 2006 - 10:05:08 EST

from <http://www.socialistreview.org.uk>

      Venezuela: The Struggle after the Vote
      Feature by Michael Lebowitz, December 2006

      In the latest test for President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans are voting
in a presidential election that will decide the future of the
country's radical reforming government. Michael Lebowitz talks to SR
about the nature of the "Bolivarian Revolution".

      Hugo Chavez is the most prominent symbol of a far-reaching
revolutionary process in Venezuela, which has provided inspiration
for those fighting corporate globalisation and imperialism across
Latin America and around the globe. A hero to millions, he is a
thorn in the side of George Bush.

      Michael Lebowitz, a leading Marxist writer currently living in the
capital, Caracas, has just published a new book entitled Build It
Now, which examines the potential for this process to lead to the
creation of a new "socialism for the 21st century". He answered
questions from SR.

      *In the title of the last chapter of your book you use the phrase
"The Revolution of Radical Needs". What makes events in Venezuela a
revolution, and who is driving this process forwards?*

      A revolution is not a coup or a specific act - it is a process.
There definitely is a revolutionary process under way in Venezuela.

      This process is creating conditions that empower people from below
while keeping firmly in sight the goal of human development, which
is where the phrase in my title comes from. It is a process in which
oil money is being used both to support the development of human
productive forces and also to create new productive relations. And
it is one where a new form of power from below - communal councils -
organising neighbourhoods composed of 200 to 400 families in urban
areas, is rapidly spreading. How far this process will go won't be
decided by analysts, but only through real struggle.

      Certainly, Chavez is pushing this process forward. There's no
question about this - you only have to read his speeches. But Chavez
doesn't act in a vacuum. The incredible response he gets from the
masses makes him what he is. In the absence of this response, which
electrifies him and gives him energy and confidence, I suspect that
he would be absorbed into the "Third Way" perspective that he had at
the time of his initial election. So I see a dialectical process
here between leadership and those at the base of society.

      *How are those at the base of society organised? In your book you
talk about the need to construct a "political instrument" or party
of some kind. Are there signs of this happening? How could the
different sectors - informal workers living in the barrios,
organised workers in the UNT union federation, agricultural workers
and peasants - be drawn together?*

      In local communities, those at the base are organised in many ways,
for example through land committees, health committees, water
committees, defence, sports, etc. And in the communal councils the
focus is upon bringing these specific sectoral concerns together so
the communities can look at their problems as a whole. This is an
important step in uniting that base.

      But we are still a way off from linking those individual communities
in common demands and, further, linking them directly with organised
workers, who tend to be well off relative to the masses in the
informal sector. Part of the problem is that the UNT union
federation has been so preoccupied with internal factional struggles
that the leadership which organised workers could provide is absent.
So, at this point, the development of that political instrument
which I see as necessary is a slow process.

      It could emerge more rapidly in the context of a political crisis,
or if Chavez threw his energy into stressing the importance of
political organisation at the base - as he did during the 2004
referendum campaign, in which the elite tried to have him removed as

      *Venezuela is still a capitalist society, with dire poverty. There
have been ambitious social programmes, in health, education,
literacy and so on. How far is it possible to reform Venezuelan
society without new revolutionary convulsions?*

      I think the social programmes have made a big difference to the
majority, but that a revolutionary rupture will be necessary, sooner
or later, if this process is to continue to move along a socialist
path. What form it would take, however, is unclear.

      In the absence of political and cultural revolutions, the revolution
will be inevitably deformed. By cultural I mean the problem of the
long-standing pattern of clientalism and corruption - a disease to
which Chavist leaders are by no means immune. And this is not simply
a question of attitudes. There are people around Chavez who want
"Chavez without socialism". As I write in my book, these are people
whose concern for "development of the capabilities and capacities of
the masses is not as compelling as the desire for the accumulation
of power and comfort for their families".

      Class struggle is everywhere in Venezuela. It's there in the battle
against US imperialism and neoliberalism, and for real sovereignty.
It's there in the battle between Venezuela's old oligarchy and the
Bolivarian Revolution [the name Chavez has applied to the process in
Venezuela]. It's there in the struggle between Venezuelan
capitalists and organised workers as well as peasants, and it's
there in the growing divergence between a new would-be Bolivarian
oligarchy and the masses of those excluded and exploited.

      All of these are in play at the same time, but in my view, the
contradictions within the Chavist camp itself point to the most
immediate threat to the progress of the revolution. They reveal the
barrier that must be removed in order to proceed on other fronts.
But, again, how that happens depends upon many contingent factors.

    To what extent is the state an obstacle to socialist transformation in
Venezuela? You quote Karl Marx's comment on the Paris Commune of 1871,
when workers briefly held power in the city. He argued, based on that
experience, that workers can't take control over the "ready-made state
machinery" that grows up under capitalism. Does that mean the state
has to be "smashed" or can the state be "transformed"? Do workers need
to create their own state from below, as happened during the Commune?*

      So far the existing Venezuelan state has been an enormous obstacle -
even to the establishment of the social programmes. It's important
to keep in mind that all the successful programmes introduced have
occurred by forming "missions" which bypass existing state
structures. And now a new state has the potential to emerge in the
form of the communal councils, one that creates the basis for power
from below - a new kind of state, much like Marx saw in the Paris

      So, yes, I do think that a new kind of state is needed, but
precisely how it is put into place in Venezuela or elsewhere doesn't
have to follow a particular formula. Rather, what is important is
the clear recognition of the goal - that only a state that is
democratic and decentralised, as Marx learned from French workers,
can allow for the full development of working people. However, if
I'm asked how I feel about people who say that the state must be
"smashed" because the state (any state) by definition betrays and
defeats you, I just laugh.

      *What about the international dimension? Is there a danger of
Venezuela becoming isolated from other countries?*

      Yes, there is that danger. And, yes, Venezuela needs international
support and needs not to be isolated. Having said that, though, the
question is what kind of isolation and what do you do to prevent it?

      Some people say, "We need to do everything possible to win public
opinion to support the Bolivarian Revolution." And what do they mean
by public opinion? Well, the mass media, influential intellectuals
and left opinion makers. So what is the implication of that focus -
it's that you should conform, not stick out, because you'll be
hammered. So just do your nice anti-poverty programmes, and you'll
get that support, they argue. We'll be able to describe you as "old

      Such people would say, "No, no, don't remove your ambassador from
Israel in response to its assaults on the Lebanese and Palestinian
people - you will alienate important countries whose support you
need in checking US aggression against you." But the masses in the
Middle East understood the importance of Venezuela's action and
celebrated Chavez's principled courage in taking this action - one
which made the inaction of their own compromised governments so

      More in dispute is the matter of Chavez's celebrated UN speech [in
which he referred to George Bush as "the devil"]. The wisdom of
domestic and foreign international experts would say, "Look, there
in that speech Chavez screwed Venezuela's chances at getting a seat
on the UN Security Council." Well, maybe (I'm not convinced the
votes were ever there). But Chavez, speaking naturally in the same
way he does to the Venezuelan masses, also electrified masses around
the world through that speech and excited them about something
different happening in Venezuela.

      Even more important was the response in Venezuela itself. Of course,
opposition people as well as supporters who worry about the reaction
of the respectables were predictable. However, what I saw was
incredible pride among workers and the masses - people saying he's
the only one telling the truth; he's the only one with the "cojones"

      And there's something here that goes beyond the particulars of
Venezuela and Chavez's UN speech. I've been reading (finally!) C L R
James's magnificent book, The Black Jacobins, about the 1791-1803
Haitian Revolution. One point made so clearly is that the fatal
error of Toussaint L'Ouverture [who led the forces that liberated
the island from the colonial powers] was his manoeuvring and trying
to convince France of his good intentions while ignoring, in the
process, the need to communicate with the revolutionary masses and
understand what they needed to hear. And the same problem, I
understand, occurred with the Sandinistas [who ruled Nicaragua from
1979 to 1990], who tried to convince imperialism that they were
really "nice guys", rather than tailoring their message to their own
base. The first responsibility of revolutionary leadership is to
stay in touch with the masses. And that is Chavez's natural gut
instinct - he empathises with and speaks the thoughts of the masses.
When he follows those instincts, he is at his best.

      So what about the problem of international isolation, then? The
responsibility for preventing this is that of the left outside
Venezuela. I have little patience with popes of the left who issue
their encyclicals about how yet another real world example fails
their pristine tests for socialism. It is a responsibility of
revolutionaries to learn what is happening in Venezuela and to
spread an understanding of the use of oil revenue to create new
productive relations, the extent and variety of programmes which are
supporting the development of the capacity of people, the creation
of communal councils, and what is happening in workplace occupations
and worker decision-making. And I think that organising
international solidarity on this basis is simultaneously a way of
organising domestically to build a new common sense that challenges

      *The last time SR looked in detail at Venezuela was at the start of
this year. What's changed in the past 12 months and how important is
the current election campaign?*

      Perhaps the most significant changes are the development of the
communal councils and the extent to which the organised working
class, by splintering organisationally, is not currently playing an
important role in the process. The real question is what next year
will bring. Chavez has stressed the need to deepen the socialist
process and bring people together to create a unique party of the
revolution. What that will mean in practice is really unclear.

      This election is obviously critical to the continuation of the
process. But I have never seen a more incoherent campaign than that
being run on behalf of Chavez. I think this is a clear reflection of
intense contradictions within the Chavist camp. In the absence of a
struggle to shift power to the base within the Chavist forces, I'm
not at all optimistic about the deepening of the socialist process,
and think a unique party would be a barrier rather than an
instrument for moving along a socialist path. In short, I think we
are potentially entering into a new phase of class struggle in


      Michael Lebowitz's Build It Now: Socialism For The Twenty-First
Century is published by Monthly Review Press and available from
Bookmarks, 020 7637 1848

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