Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution, led by socialist President Hugo Chavez, has captured the imagination of people around the world and sparked widespread commentary on the nature of the process of social change under way in the oil-rich South American nation.
Named after Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of the continent from Spanish colonialism, the process of change has been aimed at overcoming the country's underdevelopment and widespread poverty. When Chavez was elected in 1998, the country had been devastated by neoliberal policies that bled the country dry largely on behalf of US corporations, with the complicity of a corrupt Venezuelan elite.
Any discussion on this process of change inevitably centres on the role of Chavez, the revolution's central leader. A common analysis of the politics of Chavez, the government he leads, and, in some cases, the broader revolutionary movement based on the impoverished, working people, is that they can be understood as "social democratic". Social-democratic politics tend to be understood as seeking to implement reforms that alleviate some of the worst aspects of the profit-driven capitalist system, to the benefit of ordinary people, without breaking with capitalism itself.
Certainly, the Chavez government has implemented a wide number of reforms that in and of themselves don't do away with capitalism — a system based on private ownership and control over the economy, run for profit and based on the exploitation of working people — but have still benefited the poor majority.
However, describing the process as social democratic misses the profoundly revolutionary nature of the struggle being led by Chavez (who in almost every speech he gives calls for the need to construct socialism and describes himself as the "subversive within Miraflores", the presidential palace).
The line of march for the Bolivarian revolution pushed by Chavez, who elaborates on revolutionary strategy in many speeches, especially on his weekly television program Alo Presidente (when not singing folk songs), is not for the process of change to stop with reforms to Venezuela's existing power structures. He has used reforms to weaken the political and economic power of Venezuela's capitalist class, while at the same time strengthening the confidence and organisation of the oppressed (the workers, urban poor, campesinos, women and indigenous people) in order to replace the structures of the old society with new ones based on the oppressed themselves.
This is a very difficult struggle, with many weaknesses and internal contradictions. It involves the ongoing creation and organisation of a revolutionary movement involving millions of people, who through their mass, coordinated action are capable of creating a completely new social system. Socialism — a society based on a democratically planned economy run according to people's needs — cannot be decreed from above by a president, nor by simply elaborating a well-written program, as it involves the transformation of social relations for millions of people.
Much analysis, especially in the corporate media but unfortunately among much of the international left as well, focuses almost exclusively on the role of Chavez as an individual. However the correct way to analyse his role is in relation to the masses that have been drawn into political motion, and ask whether Chavez and his government's policies work to advance the organisation of the oppressed in order to break the political and economic power of the capitalist class, or whether the policies hold this back.
In some cases, claims that Chavez is a social democrat are used to attack him by sections of the revolutionary socialist movement internationally. These arguments go further than suggesting simply that the revolution hasn't gone far enough, something Chavez himself repeatedly emphasises — for instance, while announcing a series of radical measures aimed at creating a "new revolutionary state" and that nationalisation of "strategic industries" following his re-election on an explicitly socialist platform in December, Chavez insisted the revolution had "barely begun". Left critics suggest that Chavez and his government either have no desire for significantly more radical measures, or falsely believe that the government's approach is to implement more radical measures over the heads of the masses, which they rightly point out would be bound to fail.
However an analysis of Chavez as social democratic has also come from some outspoken in their support for the Chavez government and the process of change under way, such as the left-wing writers Tariq Ali, John Pilger and Stephen Lendman, all of whom play invaluable roles in promoting and defending the Bolivarian revolution.
While for those revolutionary socialists who wish to label Chavez a "social democrat" it is intended to highlight the perceived limitations of his politics (and by implication the mass movement that supports him), for many people the concept of genuinely social-democratic politics, based on state provision of welfare, health care and education and at least a degree of respect for people's rights, seems a very good thing in this age of savage neoliberalism.
However understanding why the Bolivarian revolution is not simply a case of Chavez taking up a banner dropped by social-democratic parties, like the ALP and the British Labour Party, rushing to implement brutal anti-worker policies, is crucial to understanding why such parties have moved so dramatically to the right during the past few decades.
In his book Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century (which Chavez strongly praised on Alo Presidente and urged Venezuelans to read), Canadian Marxist Michael Lebowitz uses his experience as a policy advisor to a social-democratic New Democratic Party state government in Canada in the '70s to show that for social democrats, the interests of the capitalist system have always come first — and if advancing the interests of working people conflicts with the needs of the system, then it is the former that gets dropped.
In the First World the post-war economic boom allowed for the creation of a welfare state and other measures that improved the lot of working people, but since the boom ended in the mid-'70s, the capitalists have attempted to wrest all of these gains back. Social-democratic parties across the board have proven willing to implement neoliberal austerity measures to this end.
In Venezuela, the advent of Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution have amounted to a break with the class-collaborationist politics of social democracy that seek to subordinate struggles by workers to the interests of capital by promoting the idea of common interests between two fundamentally irreconcilable social forces — working people and capitalists.
Within Venezuela, these politics were expressed by Accion Democratica, a political party that alternated in power with the conservative COPEI party and controlled the unions, and today is part of Venezuela's counter-revolutionary opposition.
Although the program Chavez initially sought to implement after his election did not break with capitalism, the mild reforms aroused strident opposition from the capitalists, outraged at even minor encroachments on their privileges. The capitalist class was defeated in its attempts to overthrow Chavez when working people took the streets in April 2002 during a US-backed coup and during a lockout by bosses in December that year. This led Chavez to conclude that the changes Venezuela desperately needed were impossible within the framework of capitalism.
However, many commentators point out that, even with the pro-people, anti-capitalist measures implemented so far, capitalism is far from abolished in Venezuela. These reforms have included the government wresting control of the oil industry; forcing foreign oil companies into joint ventures that give the Venezuelan government majority control; increasing nationalisation of "strategic industries"; a program of land reform to break up large agribusiness for the benefit of campesino cooperatives; the promotion of a "social economy" based on a massive expansion in cooperatives; and a series of measures that restrict the ability of capitalists in Venezuela to put their profits above the needs of the people — price controls, heavy restrictions on their ability to sack workers and increasing workers' rights. In fact, despite these reforms, corporate profits have grown with the economic boom.
The key question in Venezuela is not merely the subjective intentions of Chavez, who has sparked a mass discussion on socialism in Venezuela, but the willingness and capacity of the millions of oppressed to take political and economic control out of the hands of the capitalists. Through the political battles over the last few years, this has continually increased, opening the way for increasingly radical measure. The key to the revolutionary process can be found in a book that Chavez urged Venezuelans to read during his Alo Presidente program on April 22 — The Transitional Program by Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Russian Revolution and an opponent of its Stalinist degeneration.
Written in 1938, the book is an argument for how a program of struggle for increasingly deep-going reforms that, without abolishing capitalism, make deep inroads into the capitalist system, can raise the level of consciousness and organisation of the working people and open the road to socialism.
Transitional measures aim to proceed from the mass of people's existing level of consciousness and, by pushing measures that solve the needs of the working people while undermining capitalism, lay the groundwork for much deeper measures towards a socialist economy. Such transitional measures — such as nationalising key areas of the economy, introducing elements of workers' control and shortening the working week with no loss of pay — can act as a bridge between the existing capitalist system and an increasingly socialist economy under the control of the working people and run according to their needs.
The transitional approach seeks to find ways to draw masses of people into political activity and increasingly radicalise the broadest layers so they are willing and able to fight for even more radical measures. This explains why, at the same time as Chavez promotes policies increasingly attacking capitalist interests, he continues in his speeches to urge the capitalist class to join the revolutionary project. Some revolutionary socialists, who already understand that the capitalists will never accept the measures implemented by Chavez, see this as evidence of social-democratic politics. However, Chavez is not speaking to those already convinced of socialist revolution, but to the millions of people in Venezuela, including the more than 4 million who voted for the opposition — the overwhelming majority of whom are not capitalists but middle and working class people misled into backing the pro-capitalist opposition.
An example of this came on June 2, when Chavez addressed hundreds of thousands of supporters in a demonstration to defend his government from attacks by the US-backed, right-wing opposition. Claiming his government had no plans to "eliminate" the Venezuelan capitalist class, Chavez added: "If the Venezuelan bourgeoisie continues to desperately attack us, utilising the refuges it has left, then the Venezuelan bourgeoisie will continue to lose these refuges one by one!
"This message is for the Venezuelan bourgeois class. We respect you as Venezuelans, you should respect Venezuela, you should respect the homeland, you should respect our constitution, you should respect our laws. If you don't do this … we will make you obey the Venezuelan laws!"
Presenting the struggle in such a way aims to ensure it is the actions of Venezuela's capitalists themselves that expose them and provide the justification in the eyes of millions of people for more radical measures that aim to overturn capitalism completely.
This mass action-based approach is the essence of a genuinely revolutionary strategy, one that applies in all countries, although according to national conditions. It is necessary to understand that while the revolution is a work in progress, its aim and trajectory are not simply tinkering with the system along social-democratic lines, but its abolition and replacement with socialism.
[Stuart Munckton is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency in Australia's Socialist Alliance. Visit http://www.dsp.org.au for more information.]