The dead Left: Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution

Marco Torres
Platypus Review
July 1, 2010


This article is republished on the occasion of Hugo Chavez’s death for the purpose of discussion.  It is not meant to insult his character shortly after his demise, as it was written three years ago.

One finds quite a bit of name-calling among the innumerable articles and blog posts written in criticism of Hugo Chavez and his government. Although most of this invective is not very illuminating, one article by a young, Colombian, Trotsky-ish labor organizer describes Chavez perfectly in two words: a “postmodern Bonapartist.”

Chavez, his Bolivarian Revolution, and his project of “21st Century Socialism” are postmodern in the sense that they exist in a discontinuity, in an amnesiac disconnect, with the modernist project of social and political emancipation that started with the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century and withered and died sometime in the late 20th century. Since this project of freedom is inseparable from the politics of the revolutionary socialist Left, to say that Chavez’s politics are postmodern is simply to say that they are post-Left. He is not a liberal. Nor is he a Marxist. He has never theorized or organized proletarian revolution like Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, or Trotsky did. He has never even advocated for a “people’s war” like Mao or Che. One hesitates even to brand him a Stalinist. While Stalinism was, in Trotsky’s words, “the great organizer of defeats” for the working class, one would be hard pressed to call Chavez a “great organizer” of anything of such historical significance. Indeed, he is best thought of as more effect than cause. While Stalinism made Marxism into a dogma, the only dogma of the Bolivarian Revolution is whatever notion happens to cross Chavez’s mind at the moment. Chavez’s ideology is so versatile there is seemingly nothing it cannot take on board. From time to time, it even makes gestures in the direction of LGBTQ and women’s rights. This, however, should not be seen as anything more than mere posturing, since in Venezuela abortion is still illegal, and Chavez embraces numerous openly homophobic allies such as Evo Morales, Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

There are no coherent, historically self-aware principles to the politics of Chavismo. It is bricolage, a precarious construction: Some ’30s vintage Pop Frontism mixed together with a little ’90s anti-globalization, molded upon an armature of ’60s-style developmentalist Third Worldism, then sprinkled with equal parts “communitarian” participatory democracy, “multiculturalism,” and ascetic anti-consumerism. (A touch of anti-Semitism is added as and when necessary.) Although this incoherent composite can sometimes be cynical and performative, more frequently it tends to be semi-conscious and nearly involuntary — made up of vestigial impulses whose purpose has been forgotten, having been inherited from an older political project, now decomposed beyond recognition.

The historical discontinuity between Chavez’s politics and the revolutionary Left of the 20th century is not only theoretical or ideological; it is also practical. Chavez the politician emerges from no labor background or popular movement. He hardly participated in any leftist organizations before being elected president in 1998. In fact, the Left in Venezuela was dead and buried long before he appeared on the scene.

The story of revolutionary politics in Venezuela is short and dismal. In the late 1950s, the Communist Party of Venezuela [CP] formed a popular front with the Social Democratic Party of Democratic Action [AD] to defeat a military dictatorship and to establish, for the first time, a representative democracy in the country. But the communists were soon abandoned by their erstwhile allies. AD and the Christian Democratic Party [Copei] joined forces to exclude the communists from Venezuela’s political life. At this juncture, some of the more impatient communists, galvanized by events in Cuba, armed themselves and took to the hills. The guerrilla war that followed, planned with the help of Che Guevara himself, was a disaster. Many young leftists died, the CP was criminalized, and Moscow, largely responsible for this turn of events, scolded the revolutionists for getting lost in their dreams of Cuba. Anti-imperialist “national liberation” fighting between guerrillas and the Venezuelan government continued into the mid-1970s, having now little to do with socialist politics. Meanwhile, the CP shriveled as its cadre began its exodus into Eurocommunist-style parties or “third way” social democracy.

It was not until the late 1980s, years after this Cuban-inspired hara-kiri, that Chavez stepped onto the Venezuelan political stage. From the beginning his political career was ideologically unengaged and organizationally disconnected from the history of the Venezuelan Left. But, in fact, this discontinuity is one of the traits that gives Chavez his appeal, especially for his American and European supporters. This is because Chavez seems to stand at a remove from the Left’s sordid history of failure. He appears to offer a fresh start to the intellectually and politically exhausted, while also letting them have it both ways. For although Chavez basks in the fresh air of ahistoricism, he never ceases to piously, if disjointedly, rehearse all the old certainties and comforts. “21st Century Socialism” is appealing because it authorizes its supporters’ unwillingness to reflect upon the failures of its 20th century predecessor without denying them the moral self-satisfaction of remaining true to the good old cause.

Hugo Chavez came of age in the 1970s and ’80s as a military man who believed that the decaying institutions of the Venezuelan government could only be fixed by a strong dose of military discipline. His early ideas of national regeneration had little to do with anti-imperialism and still less to do with socialism. At the time of his failed coup in 1992, they amounted to the belief that the causes of poverty and suffering in Venezuela were the result of nothing more than bureaucratic corruption, so that all that was needed was a strong hand to make the state into a more equitable and efficient redistributor of its wealth.

The young Chavez was right about one thing: In the late 1980s, the Venezuelan state was decaying. The old clientelistic petro-state, which for three decades had produced little political freedom but great stability and a relatively high standard of living, was corroding from within due to corruption and loss of revenue resulting from falling oil prices. The subsequent delegitimization came to a head in 1989 with the explosion of popular anger called the “Caracazo.” The debt crisis of the 1980s forced the newly elected Carlos Andres Perez government to restructure the country’s economy along neoliberal lines and to accept an IMF package that caused a sharp and sudden rise in the cost of living. On the day of the Caracazo, people from the slum city of Guarenas woke up to find they could no longer travel to work because bus fares had doubled overnight. Arguments over the new fares became fights, fights became riots, and riots became massive protests and widespread looting in the neighboring capital city of Caracas. The government cracked down hard and the frenzy of state violence that ensued was of a magnitude such as Caracas had never seen. In the end, some 3000 people were killed, most of them at the hands of Venezuelan security forces.

Despite its tragic dimensions, such a spontaneous, unfocused and disorganized uprising can hardly be called a political movement. And yet, American and British Chavez enthusiasts treat the Caracazo as if it was, as if the rioting masses in Venezuela, who had never heard of Chavez at this point, had somehow been clamoring for a Bolivarian Revolution back in 1989. But the Caracazo was no proletarian uprising, nor even an anti-globalization movement; it was a hopeless rebellion against hopelessness, a desperate protest against the desperation that flowed from Venezuela’s rapidly worsening economic situation and bankrupt political system.

The attempt to turn the Caracazo retrospectively into a proto-Bolivarian mass movement derives from anxiety at the fact that no social movement led to or culminated in the Bolivarian Revolution. When he won the 1998 election six years after his failed military coup, Chavez was not the popular leader of a social movement. He was popular because Venezuela’s political system had lost all legitimacy. People lacked faith in state institutions. Unsurprisingly then, in 1998 Chavez’s support was not drawn exclusively from the working poor, but came from all social classes. Voters responded to Chavez’s message that, as a strong executive, he would be able to shake up corrupt state institutions and save the nation. Chavez’s road to power was thus Bonapartist in that he presented himself as the ideal Venezuelan national who is necessary to reorganize a state in crisis, someone who would discipline decadent elites and facilitate reconciliation between social classes. Yet the qualification of “postmodern” should be added to this Bonapartism because, unlike Napoleon III or Benito Mussolini, Chavez was not the product of the failure of an emergent revolutionary Left. Rather, he is the result and expression of the creeping decay characteristic of a political order vacated by the Left.

At the time of his bungled military coup in 1992, Chavez was no socialist. Nor had he become one when he won the election in 1998. He was still not a socialist when, from 2002 to 2004, sectors of the ruling class banded together with a large majority of Venezuelan organized labor in an attempt to topple him, first by a military coup, then by organizing a lockout of the oil industry, and finally by demanding a recall referendum. The reason for their hostility was not that they feared that Chavez was becoming a socialist or that he might establish a socialist state; they were simply alarmed that his reckless spending, his power-driven nationalization projects, and his unpredictable interventions into legislative matters were producing an environment that was bad for business.

Critics and supporters alike recognize that it was not until the aftermath of the recall referendum of 2004 that Chavez began to move steadily leftward. Only then did he adopt the new rhetoric of “Socialism of the 21st Century.” In the aftermath of the coup and lockout debacles of 2002–03, Chavez’s popularity had hit its lowest point. He had become weak, his attitude towards his enemies conciliatory. But in the months leading up to the referendum, he discovered a new way to rapidly increase his support, especially among the urban poor. A few months before the vote, while flush with income derived from the post-Iraq invasion spike in oil prices, Chavez embarked on a massive program of social spending that targeted sectors of society known as the “ni-ni’s” (neither-nors). These were poor or lower-middle class people who did not feel strongly about the government one way or the other. The device was highly successful and it taught Chavez a lesson he has not forgotten: He could outflank his enemies and maintain his grip on power not through appeasement, but by polarizing Venezuelan society through radical rhetoric and programs for which he alone was responsible.

From 2005 on, Chavez was able to seriously weaken the opposition by making support for the regime a precondition for benefitting from the government’s petrodollar largesse. At the same time, more frequently than before, Chavez took recourse to intimidation and direct attacks against his regime’s opponents. While the most widely publicized case of this new aggressive attitude, the shutting down of the right-wing anti-Chavez TV station RCTV, was itself an unwarranted assault on free speech, other manifestations of this new willingness to intimidate opponents were even more sinister. There was, for example, the “Lista Tascón,” a database of the 2,400,000 people who signed the petition for the recall referendum. Many on this list were fired from their jobs, banned from working in the public sector, and denied issuance of official documents. Use of these and similar techniques of polarization accompanied the change of strategy that Chavez announced at the 2005 World Social Forum to begin work towards a new “Socialism for the 21st Century.” It seems, then, that the radicalization of Chavez’s discourse after 2004 is little more than part of the regime’s more aggressive and polarizing approach. Like the clientelistic spending and the electoral bullying, the turn from nationalist Bolivarianism to “21st Century Socialism” is an instrument of the regime’s larger strategy to foster a “with us or against us” political atmosphere in Venezuela. Those who oppose Chavez, from the Right or from the Left, are no longer just traitors to the nation, but also traitors to socialism and agents of American imperialism.

“21st Century Socialism” and the “revolutionary process” Chavez has spoken about for more than five years now consists primarily of intermittent and radical gestures disguising a system that is very similar to the old pre-Chavez welfare petro-state. Venezuela remains a mixed economy in constant need of foreign investment. This is evident from the way the government continues to avidly court potential American investors. This is also demonstrated, more perniciously, by the government’s practice of aggressively cracking down on inconvenient labor activism, such as the recent intimidation of protesting workers from Mitsubishi, a firm with which Chavez’s regime has many close ties. The bourgeoisie has not been expropriated, nor will it be. Aside from Chavez’s now complete control of the key petroleum industry, expropriations have been primarily symbolic or have served as means of punishing political enemies. They have not significantly changed the economy. As an article in The New Yorker put it in 2007,

If this is socialism, it’s the most business friendly socialism ever devised… The U.S. continues to be Venezuela’s most important trading partner. Much of this business is oil: Venezuela is America’s fourth-largest supplier, and the U.S. is Venezuela’s largest customer. But the flow of trade goes both ways and across many sectors. The U.S. is the world’s biggest exporter to Venezuela, responsible for a full third of its imports. The Caracas skyline is decorated with Hewlett-Packard and Citigroup signs, and Ford and G.M. are market leaders there. And, even as Chavez’s rhetoric has become more extreme, the two countries have become more entwined: trade between the U.S. and Venezuela has risen thirty-six percent in the past year.[1]

There is no dictatorship of the proletariat here, and the government certainly has no intention of “withering away.” In fact, Chavez’s state functions more or less like the old AD and Copei regimes, projecting its power through the selective, top-down redistribution of oil wealth. The difference is mainly rhetorical. Chavez makes poverty relief programs into “missions”; welfarist measures like economic stimuli for small businesses and the building of housing projects are rebranded as “revolutionary” institutions of a “new social economy.” Of course these initiatives, notably the relief missions, are most welcome to those who benefit from them. They have had significant success in alleviating extreme poverty, particularly through subsidized food and free healthcare. Were the Chavista regime to dissolve, this much needed aid might cease. But this should not obscure the fact that these programs render their beneficiaries politically powerless. Because they are intended to be politically demobilizing, this generosity comes at a very steep price. Besides, the anti-poverty initiatives have proven difficult to sustain, decreasing substantially since the economic crisis of 2008. If there were to be a significant fall in oil prices, a situation the regime has not yet suffered, the aid would probably vanish altogether without its recipients being able to do much about it. This is not socialism overcoming the tyranny of poverty. It is a charity that, for the moment, has remained affordable and politically beneficial to a government that holds all the cards.

Other programs, the ones that are actually supposed to empower the “people,” are even more problematic. This is especially the case with the “communal neighborhood councils.” It seems that Chavez has keyed in to the fact that it has become fashionable on the contemporary “Left” to replace the working class with the “community” as the agent that will overcome capitalism, and to replace internationalism with localism. The regime represents the neighborhood councils as a new form of “communal participatory democracy” destined to overcome the “elitism” of bourgeois representative democracy. These councils are localized organizations, strictly party affiliated and exclusively funded by the state, where a group of families from a neighborhood are selected to lead community work on neighborhood development and local infrastructure. Their political scope is extremely limited: They make decisions on repairing streets or building houses, all the while remaining completely dependent on the state. In this environment, “participatory democracy” simply consists of the elimination of the secret ballot and thus the monitoring of opposition within the councils. Ultimately, these organizations have been a boon for Chavez, since a law has recently been passed in which Chavez’s government can overrule decisions made by local elected officials such as mayors. Since Chavez is in complete control of these councils, they have become a useful tool for him to keep disgruntled officials in check, whether they are members of his own party or affiliated with the opposition.

Then there are the cooperatives, which are also touted as the basis of the new “social economy.” Despite the rhetoric of non-capitalist, “endogenous” development, these cooperatives function chiefly as sources of cheap, temporary labor for the public sector. Small groups of workers are given financial and logistical support to enter into short-term contracts with private companies, but as often as not they end up working for PDVSA, the state oil company. Since members of these cooperatives are legally not considered workers, but self-employed associates, their labor is exempt from labor laws and subject to super-exploitation. As a result, they are often paid less than minimum wage. The cooperatives go out of business or lose government patronage if they attempt to improve their conditions.

The fact that enthusiastic observers of Chavez’s “revolutionary process” see such initiatives as the way to overcome capitalism says more about the observers’ understanding of capitalism than it does about the process itself. For such enthusiasts, capitalism equals the Washington consensus and IMF-enforced neoliberalism. In their imagination, a charitable, paternalistic state that constantly violates workers’ right of association seems to have replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the road to socialism. This is especially shameful for self-avowed Marxist supporters of Chavez such as Tariq Ali and Alan Woods, who are either not paying attention or just playing stupid with respect to El Comandante’s approach to labor.

Chavez has been an enemy of union autonomy and organized labor from day one. As early as 1999, he suspended all collective bargaining in the public administration and petroleum sectors. The state has frequently intervened in union elections, and refused to recognize leadership unsupportive of the government. Even before they backed the coup attempt, Chavez tried to destroy the old AFL-CIO affiliated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). More recently, he has succeeded in strong-arming the National Union of Workers (UNT) to surrender their autonomy and join his newfangled United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). As with the Mitsubishi case, Chavez showed his willingness to use the police to put an end to politically inconvenient mobilizations, strikes, and factory takeovers. As he put it with cynical bluntness in one speech, “We need the party and we need the unions, but we can’t let each do as they please. Unions are just like parties, they want autonomy and they want to make decisions. This is not right, we didn’t come here to fumble around. We came here to make a revolution.” When UNT joined Chavez’s party it crippled the union for years, and today the leaders who opposed the union’s surrender of autonomy have been purged. At the moment, the UNT, now headed by Chavista organizers, is considering dissolving itself altogether. To replace it and other unions, Chavez now proposes a new program of “workers councils” which, despite their revolutionary-sounding name, will be no more than servile government organizations meant to monitor and ultimately eliminate the authority of pesky labor activists. Autonomous political action by the working class is, at this point, under a full-scale assault in Venezuela.

The Bolivarian Revolution christens everything it does with high-sounding revolutionary names. Union-busting government organizations get the name of “workers councils,” party-dependant neighborhood associations become “participatory democracy,” and unfinished housing projects in depopulated areas are trumpeted as visionary “socialist cities.” Chavez has renamed the familiar tools of holding onto power, by drawing heavily upon the vocabularies of 20th century socialism. This has been most obviously the case with the regime’s use of the language of anti-imperialism. Chavez’s clownish anti-American antics, such as calling Bush the devil, and saying he had “left a smell of sulfur” at the UN, are just so many desperate publicity stunts to get negative attention from Washington. Chavez needs the American threat. It is an awkward situation for him that there are no serious plans for U.S. invasion, and that the days have passed when the Venezuelan Right was strong enough to ask Washington for support like it did in 2003. A diffuse state of emergency is a critical element of the regime’s political effectiveness. If Chavez becomes a non-issue for the U.S., it will become more difficult for him to wield anti-imperialist rhetoric, to blame the opposition for all that goes awry, and to demonize his opponents as agents of imperialism — a practice that reached its absurd nadir when the Chavista UNT organizers accused the Trotskyist labor leader Orlando Chirino of working for imperialist counterrevolution.

From what standpoint does one criticize a “socialist” regime that threatens striking workers with arrest and prosecutes labor leaders who seek to maintain union independence? From what standpoint do we oppose a military strongman who has called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “brother revolutionary”? Despite the obvious opportunism, ideological incoherence, and anti-labor politics of the regime, the question of whether it is possible to oppose Chavez from the Left is not cut and dried. Although Chavez’s regime is indeed an obstacle for truly emancipatory politics in Venezuela and around the world, it is difficult to even point this out when such an emancipatory politics has ceased to exist. As things stand, it is as if the only perspective from which to point out the incompetence, authoritarianism, corruption, and most of all, the hypocrisy of the regime, is from a desire to return to the incompetent, authoritarian, and corrupt neoliberal order that preceded it. And as things stand, such a return is the only possible result of the end of Chavez’s rule. Must the Left simply hold its nose in solidarity for what might or might not be the lesser of two evils? Should it just be glad and thank the heavens that something somewhere looks remotely like its distorted memory of what socialist revolution used to be?

Seasoned personages of the anti-capitalist Left are aware that their politics have run out of steam, and that self-deceiving optimism is the only option. In his book Pirates of the Caribbean, the 1960s radical Tariq Ali depicts Chavez, Fidel Castro, and Evo Morales as a new “axis of hope” against the evils of the Washington Consensus. (Nevermind that Bolivia could not possibly be a “pirate” of the Caribbean, since it borders neither the Caribbean nor any other body of water, being a landlocked country). Meanwhile, Z Magazine contributor Gregory Wilpert continues to maintain his website Venezuela Analysis, which reads like little more than the American public relations page for the Chavista bureaucracy. The International Socialist Organization’s Lee Sustar routinely publishes articles in support of Chavez’s PSUV and its Stalinist tactics of absorbing or destroying every other leftist organization. And Parecon author Michael Albert found no problem in signing Chavez’s farcical call for a 5th International, presumably failing to notice that among the parties invited was Mexico’s PRI, infamous for its 71-year long iron grip of the country and, among its many crimes, the notorious massacre of hundreds of protesting students in October of 1968.

For someone familiar with the history of revolutionary politics it is tempting to reproach sycophants as traitors of “real Marxism” or of “authentic socialism.” Certain Trotskyist groups would even go so far as to call these self-deceivingly optimistic intellectuals petty bourgeois anarchists, revisionists, Shachtmanites, Pabloists, or some such deviation. Unfortunately, the truth is more prosaic: the sycophants are not ideologically deviant. They are simply exhausted. They have come to terms with the fact that revolutionary anti-capitalist politics have ceased to exist as a material force in the world and are ready to grasp at the next best thing — their simulacrum. Bolivarian “21st Century Socialism” is the socialism that today’s “Left” deserves. It is the socialism that makes sense in a world where the Left is dead. It is an adequate representation of the state of emancipatory politics today.

The question stands: If authentic internationalist Marxism is dead, from what standpoint does one launch a critique of Chavez and his followers without joining the Venezuelan opposition nostalgic for neoliberalism? The only answer is history: The consciousness that the present has fallen short of what once seemed politically possible, and that this possibility could once again become available. The knowledge that there was once such a thing as an international Left that was able to intervene, transform, and lead social movements around the world in the direction of the overcoming of capitalism. The awareness that the mass politicization of the Bolivarian Revolution, which has put the word “socialism” on the lips of hundreds of thousands of working people, will end up as yet another wasted opportunity if such a Left is not reconstituted.

Admittedly, this standpoint is not much to start with. It is clearly not as immediately gratifying as the self-deceiving “optimism” of supposedly Marxist publications such as the International Socialist Review and the Monthly Review. But the game they are playing is no more than a spectator sport. Cheering for team Chavez is a way for such post-mortem leftists to hold on to dear life. It is how they justify their existence and convince themselves that they are still serving a purpose: The good fight is still being fought; even if they are helpless, they can be complacent in this helplessness, since they can always look at the next populist strongman or, even better, wait for the next American invasion of a Third World country to give them a new lease on life. But if we are to reconstitute an international revolutionary Left, the first step will be to stop kidding ourselves. People continue to struggle, but the struggle to overcome capitalism has not really been sustained. Revolutions with a hope of actually overcoming capitalism around the world are now a distant memory, at best. The current changes in Venezuela cannot contribute to any real revolution until a genuine Left challenges the regime that has instituted them. But such a feat will be impossible if we do not finally get it into our heads that the fatalistic slogan, “¡Patria, socialismo o muerte!” means the exact opposite of the visionary words, “¡Proletarios de todos los países, uníos!” | P


1. James Surowiecki, “Synergy with the Devil,” The New Yorker, January 2007.

12 thoughts on “The dead Left: Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution

  1. Your politically bleak analysis of the Venezuelan social transformation offers shallow insights concerning the economic and historical context in which it occurred. Rather than a marxian analysis, it appears to be a neo-liberal, utopian one which bemoans the fact that Chavez’s brand of socialism does not live up to your ideals of how a socialist state should be constituted. It also provides a critique of Chavez the man that refuses to acknowledge that he might have changed and evolved over time, that he might have learned from his past mistakes, that he might have experienced a conversion to Marxism and that even after that conversion he continued to evolve in his thinking to become more radicalized and democratic. Your analysis fails to recognize that with all it’s admitted faults, the Venezuelan socialism was a step forward for the masses of poor and working people. It is for this reason, that Chavez won four consecutive elections in a row. It fails to recognize that for the Venezuelan people, Chavez’s socialism was only a historic stage on the path to attaining liberation. There is ample evidence to suggest that he and his followers were evaluating exactly how to bring about further democratization of the economy. Your analysis cynically tries to dismiss Chavez’s anti-imperialist rhetoric as a way of garnering support from the people and therefore seems to imply that it must not have represented an authentic threat to imperialism. Even if Chavez’s motivations were entirely driven by a desire to keep himself in power, the real facts of the socialist aquisition and control of oil and telecommunications was of deep concern to the C.I.A. and to mutinational corporations. His plans to take public ownership of banking and healthcare was equally troubling to the interests of imperialism. From a historic standpoint it doesn’t matter what his motivations were. With the death of Chavez, it is now uncertain what direction will be taken politically in Venezuela. It is my hope that leaders within his socialist party can emerge with the ability to attract broad popular support, who will take up the reins of socialist pragmatism left behind by Chavez and lead the country into real economic democracy and worker control.

    • I’m going to defer to Trotsky on this one:

      In 1938, when the Cardenas government of Mexico expropriated the oil industry from the Anglo-American imperialists, such newspapers as the NY Daily News ascribed the act to the influence of Leon Trotsky then in exile in Mexico. This, of course, was untrue.

      Trotsky had made an agreement, which he scrupulously observed, that in return for asylum he would not intervene in Mexican politics. He was forced consequently to limit himself to stating his position in general on the expropriation. He supported the act, explaining his views in an article dated June 5, 1938, published in the Socialist Appeal (now The Militant) of June 25, 1938. It was not known that Trotsky had written more fully on another aspect of the expropriation: the placing by the Mexican government of the oil industry under the management of the workers.

      In April 1946, Joseph Hansen, former Secretary of Leon Trotsky, visited Natalia Trotsky. He also called on friends of Trotsky. Among them was one who had made a study of the expropriation. This friend told about talking with Trotsky for a whole afternoon on the uniqueness of workers’ management of an expropriated industry in a capitalist country.

      Trotsky promised to consider the subject more fully. Some three days later, Trotsky’s French secretary called on the telephone that Trotsky had written a short article.

      This remarkable article had never been printed anywhere. Comrade Hansen examined the manuscript. Typewritten in French, it was undated and unsigned but the interpolations and stylistic corrections in ink appeared to be Trotsky’s handwriting. The style, and, above all, the method of analysis and the revolutionary conclusions were Trotsky’s, beyond question. Comrade Hansen immediately had a copy typed and brought it to Natalia. She was convinced of the authenticity of the article. The probable date it was written can be fixed as May or June 1938. — Editors, Fourth International, New York

      In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists. The present policy [of the Mexican government — Translator] is in the second stage; its greatest conquests are the expropriations of the railroads and the oil industries.

      These measures are entirely within the domain of state capitalism. However, in a semicolonial country, state capitalism finds itself under the heavy pressure of private foreign capital and of its governments, and cannot maintain itself without the active support of the workers. That is why it tries, without letting the real power escape from its hands, to place on the workers’ organizations a considerable part of the responsibility for the march of production in the nationalized branches of industry.

      What should be the policy of the workers’ party in this case? It would of course be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalization by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer into the hands of the workers’ organizations. But it is not a question of that. The bourgeois government has itself carried through the nationalization and has been compelled to ask participation of the workers in the management of the nationalized industry. One can of course evade the question by citing the fact that unless the proletariat takes possession of the power, participation by the trade unions in the management of the enterprises of state capitalism cannot give socialist results. However, such a negative policy from the revolutionary wing would not be understood by the masses and would strengthen the opportunist positions. For Marxists it is not a question of building socialism with the hands of the bourgeoisie, but of utilizing the situations that present themselves within state capitalism and advancing the revolutionary movement of the workers.

      Participation in bourgeois parliaments can no longer give important positive results; under certain conditions it even leads to the demoralization of the worker deputies. But this is not an argument for revolutionists in favor of antiparliamentarism.

      It would be inexact to identify the policy of workers’ participation in the management of nationalized industry with the participation of socialists in a bourgeois government (which we called ministerialism). All the members of the government are bound together by ties of solidarity. A party represented in the government is answerable for the entire policy of the government as a whole. Participation in the management of a certain branch of industry allows full opportunity for political opposition. In case the workers’ representatives are in a minority in the management, they have every opportunity to declare and publish their proposals, which were rejected by the majority, to bring them to the knowledge of the workers, etc.

      The participation of the trade unions in the management of nationalized industry may be compared to the participation of socialists in the municipal governments, where the socialists sometimes win a majority and are compelled to direct an important municipal economy, while the bourgeoisie still has domination in the state and bourgeois property laws continue. Reformists in the municipality adapt themselves passively to the bourgeois regime. Revolutionists in this field do all they can in the interests of the workers and at the same time teach the workers at every step that municipality policy is powerless without conquest of state power.

      The difference, to be sure, is that in the field of municipal government the workers win certain positions by means of democratic elections, whereas in the domain of nationalized industry the government itself invites them to take certain posts. But this difference has a purely formal character. In both cases the bourgeoisie is compelled to yield to the workers certain spheres of activity. The workers utilize these in their own interests.

      It would be lightminded to close one’s eye to the dangers that flow from a situation where the trade unions play a leading role in nationalized industry. The basis of the danger is the connection of the top trade union leaders with the apparatus of state capitalism, the transformation of mandated representatives of the proletariat into hostages of the bourgeois state. But however great this danger may be, it constitutes only a part of a general danger — more exactly, of a general sickness. That is to say, the bourgeois degeneration of the trade union apparatuses in the imperialist epoch, not only in the old metropolitan centers, but also in the colonial countries. The trade union leaders are, in an overwhelming majority of cases, political agents of the bourgeoisie and of its state. In nationalized industry they can become and already are becoming direct administrative agents. Against this there is no other course than the struggle for the independence of the workers’ movement in general, and in particular through the formation within the trade unions of firm revolutionary nuclei, which, while at the same time maintaining the unity of the trade union movement, are capable of struggling for a class policy and for a revolutionary composition of the leading bodies.

      A danger of another sort lies in the fact that the banks and other capitalist enterprises, upon which a given branch of nationalized industry depends in the economic sense, may and will use special methods of sabotage to put obstacles in the way of the workers’ management, to discredit it and push it to disaster. The reformist leaders will try to ward off this danger by servile adaptation to the demands of their capitalist providers, in particular the banks. The revolutionary leaders, on the contrary, will draw the conclusion, from the sabotage by the banks, that it is necessary to expropriate the banks and to establish a single national bank, which would be the accounting house of the whole economy. Of course this question must be indissolubly linked to the question of the conquest of power by the working class.

      The various capitalist enterprises, national and foreign, will inevitably enter into a conspiracy with the state institutions to put obstacles in the way of the workers’ management of nationalized industry. On the other hand, the workers’ organizations that are in the management of the various branches of nationalized industry must join together to exchange their experiences, must give each other economic support must act with their joint forces on the government on the conditions of credit, etc. Of course such a central bureau of the workers’ management of nationalized branches of industry must be in closest contact with the trade unions.

      To sum up, one can say that this new field of work includes within it both the greatest opportunities and the greatest dangers. The dangers consist in the fact that, through the intermediary of controlled trade unions, state capitalism can hold the workers in check, exploit them cruelly, and paralyze their resistance. The revolutionary possibilities consist of the fact that, basing themselves upon their positions in the exceptionally important branches of industry, the workers can lead the attack against all the forces of capital and against the bourgeois state. Which of these possibilities will win out? And in what period of time? It is naturally impossible to predict. That depends entirely on the struggle of the different tendencies within the working class, on the experience of the workers themselves, on the world situation. In any case, to use this new form of activity in the interests of the working class, and not of the labor aristocracy and bureaucracy, only one condition is needed: the existence of a revolutionary Marxist party that carefully studies every form of working class activity, criticizes every deviation, educates and organizes the workers, wins influence in the trade unions, and assures a revolutionary workers’ representation in nationalized industry.

  2. This is an interesting article; unfortunately, since the author neglected to provide any references for his many assertions and analyses of the petit-bourgeois, Bonapartist reformist phenomenon of “Chavismo” we cannot tell if what he writes is based on anything more than his own opinion. And it’s too bad, because the article seems to make a great deal of sense, although the author’s repeated assertions that “the left is dead” sound too “Chicken-Little”-like for our tastes. The left is definitely not dead; there are active big-“C” Communist and “little-“c” communist parties all over the world that are deeply involved in uprisings from Libya to Syria to Venezuela to Iraq to the United States to Greece – all over the world. The bourgeois press completely ignores them as if they did not exist, but that does not mean they are “dead”. Though some of them – too many – are “resting”. (Or “pining for the fjords”)?

    A Marxist analysis of the CLASS NATURE of a social movement avoids making superficial analyses of the type made by the non-Marxist petit-bourgeois liberal Thomas Wells, who avoids what he and his type invariably characterize as “dreary, dry Marxist political analysis” of Chavez, preferring to simply endow Chavez and his catch-all political “movement” with revolutionary attributes it does not and never has possessed and never even attempted to seriously pursue in any way at all.

    After a Marxist-led social revolution, the overthrow of the capitalist system is made permanent. It is no longer possible for the capitalists to exploit the working class; the ownership of the means of production throughout the economy passes to the workers state. Did this happen in Venezuela? No, it did not. Why? Because that was not part of Chavez’ program for “21st Century Socialism”. In other words, Chavez’ program is NOT socialist at all. He, his followers and his many, many Western liberal sycophants may CALL it “socialism”; but calling something “socialist” does not make it “socialist” any more than calling an “elephant” a “giraffe” turns the one into the other. Marxists understand this; superficial fake-socialists like Wells do not.

    Once a Marxist-led social revolution takes place, not only is capitalism overthrown and the economic basis for the continued existence of the capitalist class completely dismantled, it is NO LONGER POSSIBLE for pro-capitalist political parties to exist! The new ruling class – the working class – does not submit its right to rule to the test of an election held according to the time-dishonored bourgeois principles of “freedom” for the old order to re-establish itself. Pro-capitalist parties are outlawed, period! – just as monarchist parties were outlawed and brutally suppressed in the United States after the American Revolution. A revolution is a permanent thing, or the leaders of that revolution are a bunch of fools playing with the life of the nation as if it was a set of children’s wooden blocks. The most obvious failure of Chavez’ “21st Century Socialism” is the fact that it has allowed all the substantial benefits of the Chavez reforms to be placed at the mercy of the outcome of the next election, in which the capitalist, revanchist forces are allowed to openly espouse the overturn of those reforms if they win the elections – bourgeois elections, in which the widespread and judicious disbursal of many millions in cold, hard cash money will play perhaps the decisive role in determining which class will take over control of the economic life of the nation – the capitalist class or the working class. The individual members of the partially deposed capitalist class, furious at having had its personal fortunes slashed and its private property confiscated stands prepared to drown the “21st Century Socialist” movement in blood if that’s what it takes to regain their unquestioned supremacy over the uppity workers, peasants and indigenous peoples of Venezuela. In fact, they are already engaged in a program of assassinations of those workers and peasants most likely to emerge as revolutionary leaders in the post-Chavez Venezuela.

    A “failed revolution” usually ends very badly, with tens or hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants paying for that failure with their lives. THIS is what’s wrong with the bogus “new socialism” of Chavez and his craven followers, who worship him as a religious ikon – they even plan to have him embalmed a la the repulsive and decidedly non-Marxist manner in which Lenin’s corpse has been placed on display like some kind of mummified man-god. It is precisely because Chavez was NOT a revolutionary socialist in the Leninist mold, and the fact that he did NOT create a party capable even of defending the limited reforms of capitalism he was able to ram through the Venezuelan political system that the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers hang in the balance as the Venezuelan bourgeoisie seeks to return to power and get revenge for their humiliation at the hands of the Chavistas!

    You who wish to avoid the hard work of studying the history of the revolutionary workers movement and particularly the evolution and de-evolution of the USSR in favor of simply elevating a Bonapartist “great man” to the level of “socialist” ikon and then unquestioningly worshiping and fawning over him or her like the most ignorant peasants of the Middle Ages have nothing in common with Marxist revolutionaries. You are pathetic, ignorant petty-bourgeois sycophants who will find yourselves running after a “New! Improved! 21st Century Socialist!” one minute, and when he proves to be as hollow as a chocolate Easter Bunny, will find yourselves, in shame and selfish, embittered disappointment, following the fascists as they rise to power on the bones of the disillusioned and deluded followers of your previous “socialist” fetish-object. You would have made great Stalin-worshipers… or Hitler-worshipers for that matter. You chase after the deluded masses rather than leading them forward, pointing out the dangers of following a Bonapartist hero rather than pursuing a true course toward workers revolution.

    There are no short-cuts to workers revolution, children! The road towards that goal is strewn with extreme hazards that will lead to the physical destruction of the entire workers movement that could set back the date of the overthrow of the capitalist system by decades – and we don’t have that much time. The capitalists of the world and their antique greed-based system are steadily lurching from economic crisis to economic crisis towards World War Three. Every major defeat of any revolutionary movement of the working class anywhere in the world today poses the very real possibility that we will not topple the decrepit capitalist system in time to prevent it from plunging the world into global nuclear war. This is why clear-headed Marxist revolutionaries are needed to lead the working class to successfully overthrow capitalism; amateurs and short-cut-seekers will blindly drive even the most promising revolutionary upsurge of the workers and peasants into one of the many traps the capitalists will set up to crush that uprising. There are many roads to defeat – only one or two might lead towards victory! Would you rather travel down one of those revolutionary roads led by a well-trained party of professional revolutionaries that has learned by a long study of the history of the workers movement how to spot the snares that led previous travelers along that same road to their untimely deaths? Or by a group of muddle-headed pseudo-Marxists who imagine that every mortal danger they encounter can be easily overcome by a combination of platitudes, sunny optimism and prayer? An analogy: would you rather attempt to climb Mt. Everest with a group of inexperienced guides who have never climbed Everest before but who have spent years studying the obstacles faced by all previous expeditions to Everest – or would you rather just equip yourself with a team of optimistic people who have no experience climbing mountains at all and who haven’t bothered to worry themselves over what happened to previous expeditions to Everest and who intend to try an old route to the summit that is scrupulously avoided by experienced climbers due to the fact that this route requires a series of extremely hazardous traverses and steep climbs so difficult as to be adjudged far too likely to result in the deaths of everyone on the expedition? The last couple of thousand of meters below the summit of Everest is littered with the bodies of amateurs – and not a few professionals! – who have failed to make it to the top for innumerable reasonsbut primarily because they were simply not prepared to deal with the difficulties they encountered during their particular ascent. Chavez was an opera-bouffe “socialist” akin to Qaddafi; his legacy is a political party full of people whose “hearts may be in the right place” but who are non-Marxist or pseudo-Marxist amateurs also. In revolutions, as in mountain climbing, the odds are never in favor of the unprepared.

    To this day, the best revolutionary socialist model we have so far that shows us how to build an actual revolutionary Marxist workers party that can actually overthrow capitalism and create a vibrant revolutionary workers state remains that of Lenin and Trotsky and the Bolsheviks.
    You – the petit-bourgeois superficial socialists like Wells here – must abandon your hoary anti-communist hatreds of Lenin and Marx taught to you by those great worker-leaders of the US – Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan et al ad nauseam. We must study the history of the revolutionary workers movement in its entirety, learning from its tremendous successes as well as its tremendous failures – and then we must build upon the enormously strong materialist, Marxist philosophical foundation bequeathed to us by Lenin’s Bolsheviks and, with that as our theoretical and practical foundation, build a REAL “21st Century Socialism” worthy of the name.

    Independent Workers Party of Chicago

    • I am quite sure that Marco Torres made certain that every word he wrote in his comment matched the party line of his “Independent Workers Party of Chicago.” His doctrinaire ideology is nothing original and is an example of exactly the sort of thinking that has destroyed marxism and set popular movements back throughout the world.
      I will begin first by addressing my comments to Chavezism, which was after all, what the original article was about. The article likened the Chavez government to “Bonapartism” and indeed in many respects that was true. Like Bonapartism it was a centralized state that espoused a populism (socialism). In this sense it was undemocratic and not socialism. However it is my contention that the Chavez government historically from a Marxian analysis represented the early birth stages of a democratic worker controlled state.
      Torres asserts that in order to be “true” socialism there must be a clean break from the bourgeoisie, that there can be no remaining vestiges of capitalism. He points to the American Revolution as an example of how a complete separation had to be made from the aristocracy by a the newly emerging bourgeouis government in order to acheive liberty. However I think rather than the American Revolution, a better comparison between the Chavez government and the French Revolution can be made. In this respect the Chavez government resembles the first stage of the French Revolution more than the period of Napoleon Bonaparte. In the first stage of the Revolution, the newly emerging bourgeoisie asserted its power by establishing a national assembly still within the existing monarchy. For its part, the monarchy resisted this demand but eventually caved into it. A similar process occurred in Britain. Indeed, to this day in Britian the vestiges of the monarcy still exist! I for one, would never support a perpetual welfare system for the aristocracy even though it has no political power. However, no one would argue that Britain is less of a capitalist country because it retains these archaic remnants of an earlier system. In the same way then, I argue that the Chavez socialist government represents a historical stage in the process toward worker control. Is there a guarantee that the process will move to the next stage of worker democracy? No, there is never a guarantee. That is the risk that is taken in a revolutionary process.
      Now I will address the failure of Leninism as a so-called Marxist analysis and practice.
      As expressed with theological reverence by Torres, Leninism maintains that socialist consciousness can only be brought to the working class by a group of professional revolutionaries. According to Lenin in “What Is To Be Done?” (1902): “the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness.” It is for this reason that Lenin advocated the formation of a vanguard party rather than a parliamentary party, drawn mainly from the petty-boureoisie.
      But in 1879 Marx and Engels issued a circular in which they declared the opposite: “When the International was formed we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves. We cannot, therefore, co-operate with people who openly state that workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois” (www.marxists.orp/archive/marx/works/1879/18.htm).
      The Leninists have injected themselves into the people’s struggles throughout the world as self-anointed “experts” on how revolution and social transformation should occur. They are analogous to members of the the aristocracy who would have declared themselves to be the experts on how the bougeois revolutions should have looked like. Their reasoning would be that, it is this aristocracy who must be the real experts because the bourgeosie is incapable of developing capitalist consciousness on their own! Ask yourself what capitalism would be today if that had been the way in which had been formed throughout the world.
      Are these so-called Leninist revolutionaries experienced? Experienced at what? These Leninist elitists have robbed working people everywhere of their own right to self-determination. All the bloody revolutions they have led have resulted in elitist political parties, totalitarian governments, bloated bureaucracies with centralized despotism and secret police with unbridled powers. These governments have not been socialism and they have not been based on Marxism at all. They have been state capitalism. In short, Leninism and its variants in Stalinism and Maoism have done lasting damage to the economic democracy advocated by Marx and Engels. Will the ideas of Marx survive this assault? I believe it will but that’s for another comment.
      The final point I want to make is that unlike the Leninists, Marx and Engels believed that peaceful, democratic social transformation was possible and preferable. First, Marx recognized that the process of obtaining a working class controlled state was gradual. In the Manifesto Of The Communist Party, Marx says the following:
      “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie…”
      There two things to note in this quote. First Marx is saying that the working class should exercise its political strength. It does not mention war or military strength. Secondly, it says that the capital of the bourgeoisie should be wrested by degrees. This clearly implies a gradual process and a process involving political steps.
      However there is further evidence of the peaceful democratic intentions of Marx and Engels. In the 1872 La Liberte Speech given by Marx to the International Working Men’s Association in Amsterdam, Holland, he says:
      “You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries – such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland – where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal in order to erect the rule of labor.”
      By force, Marx does not specify what he means. He could mean strikes, economic boycotts, occupations, demonstrations, protest marches and other activities we would now call nonviolent civil disobedience. No where in his writings does Marx advocate the use of warfare.
      Engels also shows his support for social transformation via peaceful democratic process. According to an article published in Mainstream Weekly, May 2012, Engel considered universal suffrage an entirely new method of proletarian struggle, so effective that the working class not only could come to power but also transit to socialism with its help:
      “Engels highly praised the use of the ballot box by the German working class. He said… that the German workers had supplied their comrades in all countries with a new weapon, and one of the sharpest, when they showed them how to make use of universal suffrage.” (
      It is time to look back at what Marx and Engels wrote, spoke and participated in, to understand what they intended. It is time to disabuse ourselves of reactionary 20th century notions of Marxism. Hugo Chavez may not be the hero he is made out to be by those who wish to romaticize him but in order to be understood, he and his politcal movement must be viewed in the historcal, material context in which he emerged.

      • Marco lives in Chicago but to my knowledge is not, and never has been, a member of the Independent Workers Party of Chicago. This isn’t an indictment of the IWP-Chi, necessarily, as I’m not familiar with its politics. It’s possible, of course, that Marco is familiar with the party, but I feel like he would have mentioned it to me.

      • If it is the case that Marco is not connected with that party, then I apologize for the first part of my comment. Since the political party was mentioned, it left the implication that they somehow supported his remarks.

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