Venezuela: Socialism from below

The left-wing rebellion sweeping Latin America is one of the most significant events in politics today. It is a blow to US imperialism, which has dominated the region for so long, and it is an inspiring example to the rest of the world. Venezuelans, in particular, are openly debating the question of socialism and they are carrying out the first revolution of the 21st century.

Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, has been outspoken in his opposition to the Iraq war and Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. The number of Venezuelans living in poverty has dropped considerably and the lives of many have improved thanks to the widespread "social missions", which have provided access to free health care and education. The rights of indigenous people and women have been enshrined in the constitution; people who were previously marginalised are now engaging in politics. In Latin America, Venezuela is leading the anti-imperialist, pro-people integration push that is uniting the region and driving back Washington's "free trade" agenda.

The right wing inside Venezuela, helped by the US government, is in despair after repeated failures to overthrow the anti-capitalist government and destroy the growing self-organisation of working people. But around the world, most socialists are celebrating the wins of the last eight years of the Chavez government, which have seen the revolution radicalise and strengthen.

From the early days of the "Bolivarian revolution", Resistance, a socialist youth organisation in Australia, has taken inspiration from the steps forward made by Venezuela's poor and oppressed. However, there are still some, like Socialist Alternative (SAlt), a left-wing, campus-based group, that remain hostile to the Chavez government and refuse to see the enormous gains that have been made in the struggle for socialism in Venezuela.

An unfolding revolution gives socialists in Australia the chance to study and learn from its successes and failures. It opens debate among activists about how the victories in Venezuela have been won. Are they a result of growing people power or have they just come about through a wave of Chavez's benevolent hand?

Chavez was originally elected in 1998. At that time he was not talking about a socialist revolution, but was instead campaigning to introduce modest reforms to lift people out of poverty, through providing basic education and improving health care, and combatting corruption. The rigid opposition to this plan from big business, the media and state bureaucrats led Chavez to realise that the Venezuelan capitalist class would never willingly allow these reforms if it meant damaging corporate profits.

This fight to introduce reforms began to radicalise Chavez and other people throughout the country who had been promised change. They came to understand the whole system would have to be transformed if the Bolivarian project was to be realised in full.

In the November 2006 edition of its magazine, SAlt claimed that what is happening in Venezuela is a "revolution from above" — a program of reform rather than socialist revolution. While SAlt supports these reforms it denies the crucial role Chavez has played in pushing the revolution forward in a socialist direction and argues he will inevitably betray the people.

Yet it was Chavez who in 2005 called for a national discussion of socialism; prior to this, there had been no mass support for socialism. Chavez went to the polls in the December 2006 elections on an explicitly socialist platform, promising to deepen the revolution. He was subsequently returned with an even bigger majority.

However, by himself Chavez cannot transform the country. To say that the Venezuelan revolution has been made "from above" misses the role that the masses of Venezuelan people have played in creating and defending the revolution.

The social missions have all been carried out by people themselves. The eradication of illiteracy, for example, was achieved through thousands of young people being recruited to go door-to-door in every street to organise classes to teach people how to read and write. The missions facilitate people's organisation and self-confidence to struggle.

The 2002 US-backed coup failed because the millions of people who voted for Chavez came out onto the streets to demand the return of their government. Chavez has continually encouraged the involvement of the majority of people in politics. The explosion in the number of communal councils is one way doing this. These councils, based on a few hundred families in a particular neighbourhood, have direct access to funding and control of social programs in their area. There are now some 19,000 of them. There are plans to introduce workers' councils to facilitate workers' control over production.

It is true that the introduction of free health care and education are not by themselves socialist. A socialist system involves taking the power away from big business, unelected bureaucrats and profit-friendly politicians and putting it directly in the hands of working people, and replacing a profits-first economy with a democratically controlled one that will put the interests of workers and the protection of the environment before the interests of the corporate elite.

People will be able to make decisions about the issues that affect them, whether it is in their neighbourhood, or workplace or school. Socialism will, for example, eliminate the incongruity of a government taking a country to war when the majority of people are opposed.

A socialist society can only be constructed by working people themselves because it is a direct threat to the interests of the super-rich minority that control the big corporations — they aren't going to give up their privileges without a fight.

Venezuela is not yet a socialist country, but the reforms the government have introduced have begun to break the stranglehold of the rich over economic and political power. By increasingly empowering the working people at the expense of the capitalists, these reforms increasingly open the way to socialism. On his national television program, Alo Presidente, on April 22, Chavez urged Venezuelans to read the Transitional Program by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, which explains how reforms like those being implemented in Venezuela can act as a bridge between capitalism and socialism.

SAlt members, who like Chavez claim to support Trotsky's ideas, should ask themselves: If you wanted to hold back the self-emancipation of working people, as they claim Chavez does, why would you combine calls for workers to take power into their own hands with encouragement to study the ideas that teach workers how to carry this out.

This is a process full of contradictions, like any revolution. SAlt asks how Venezuela can be considered to be undergoing a socialist revolution while capitalist production remains in place and banks, media and industry are largely private. However, a revolution is not a black and white situation with a list of demands that get ticked off one by one. The mass of people have to learn to exercise power for themselves through involvement in struggle.

It is contradictory for SAlt to attack the revolution for being "from above", but then turn around and attack Chavez for not introducing more radical measures. However, as Chavez has said, "if people want to take control of a factory then constitutionally they don't have to wait for me to do it".

There are many challenges for the revolution. The economic and social weight of Venezuela's capitalist class has not been eliminated. The risk of counter-revolution still exists. One immediate impediment to the revolutionary process is the state bureaucracy, which continues to frustrate the implementation of government policy.

Within the revolutionary movement there are real debates at the moment about what "socialism for the 21st century" means for Venezuela, and about roles for workers' councils and unions inside the revolution.

The Venezuelan revolution does not fit into the pre-arranged idea SAlt has of what a socialist revolution will look like when it happens, so they argue in their November 2006 article that Chavez "will likely act as a brake on workers' attempts to build socialism from below". Yet where is the evidence of Chavez holding back the rights or organisation of workers? SAlt has decided in advance that the revolution is bound to fail.

Resistance does not blindly support everything Chavez or his government does. However, Venezuela is in the middle of a massive struggle, and it is not useful for activists around the world to cynically sit back to wait for the revolution to fail. In the ongoing struggle for power in Venezuela the most important task socialists can play in Australia is one of solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution.