On January 12, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez opened the founding congress of the provisionally-named United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Chavez argued it was necessary to go on the offensive with the PSUV "as the spearhead and vanguard" of the revolution his government is leading. "We have arrived here to make a real revolution or die trying."
In drawing up a balance sheet of why Chavez's constitutional reform proposal — that aimed to create a framework for the transition towards socialism — was narrowly defeated in a national referendum on December 2, one factor stands out. The Bolivarian revolution's Achilles heel is the lack of a political instrument capable of confronting the challenges faced in the struggle to construct a new, socially just, Venezuela.
For a popular movement to shift from simply opposing the established order to constructing a new political power to create a new system, it requires a political instrument — a party — capable of leading the process.
In Venezuela, such an instrument would unite the most enthusiastic and dedicated Chavistas from the grass roots in order to advance their collective class interests and democratically plan the path forward. It would bring the currently fragmented social movements and political groups that back the revolution into an organisation that would resolve a major weakness — uniting the militant grass roots with the central revolutionary leadership — until now almost entirely embodied in Chavez.
This is essential to combat the major problems of bureaucracy and corruption that affect state institutions, working to sabotage government programs in favour of the poor and attempts to construct popular power. These weaknesses are reflected in the Chavista camp, which has in home to many careerists and bureaucrats, including those who hold important positions.
Such a party may have been able to overcome the twin problems that led to the referendum defeat: the undermining of the confidence of the people due to a range of problems with government programs, and the serious political weaknesses within the Chavista camp.
By organising the Chavista ranks and mobilising them in their communities and workplaces to fight for their interests — against both the capitalists and state bureaucracy, in which an emerging political and economic elite has found its base from which to protect its interests — such a party could be decisive to helping resolve the unfinished struggle for power between the oppressed (led by the Chavez government) and the oppressors.
Constructing the PSUV
It is in this context that the 1676 delegates elected to the PSUV's founding congress are meeting to debate the program, principles and statutes of this new political instrument.
The crucial questions facing the congress are what sort of political instrument and whose interests will it serve?
The draft statement of principles of the PSUV presented to the congress argued that this political instrument "is born as an expression of the revolutionary will of the people and their political leadership".
The purpose of such an instrument, according to the draft program of the PSUV under discussion, is to make the slogan "in order to end poverty you have to give power to the poor" a reality. "That is to say, build a government based on Councils of Popular Power, where workers, campesinos [peasants], students and popular masses are direct protagonists who exercise political power."
Chavez commented that the PSUV had to become a party that would subvert the historical model of the capitalist state — which exists to serve the interests of the wealthy.
According to the draft program, in order for this instrument to be an anti-capitalist tool, it "requires the full and democratic participation of workers, peasants, youth, intellectuals, artists, housewives, small producers and petty traders from the countryside and the city, in the formation and running of all its component organs, in discussion and decision making in regards to programs and strategies, and in the promotion and election of its leadership".
Chavez argued that the PSUV had to fight to avoid the rise of a "new Bolivarian oligarchy", of a new layer of capitalists, because these groups could easily convert themselves into traitors and counterrevolutionaries. He added it is important to stop capitalists infiltrating the PSUV.
Fifty roundtables have been established in which delegates from across the country are debating these proposed objectives and program.
The congress convenes on weekends, with delegates reporting back to their socialist circumscriptions (districts) that unite between 7 to 12 socialist battalions (local branches) during the week. Before final decisions are taken, scheduled for March, a discussion of the issues from the congress will take place at all levels of the party-in-formation.
Road to the congress
When Chavez first announced the formation of the PSUV in December 2006 he made clear that the party "needs new faces". He went on to describe how the new party should be built from the bottom up and how the party should build revolutionary consciousness. "In this new party the bases will elect the leaders. This will allow real leaders to emerge."
The formation of the first technical committee charged with coordinating the development of the party until its founding congress also echoed this sentiment and to a large extent by-passed the traditional bureaucracies that dominated the major parties in the pro-Chavez camp.
However, problems began to emerge on two fronts as the PSUV prepared its public campaign to register potential members. On one hand, there was the disorganisation during the first few months in organising some 20,000 promoters for the registration campaign.
This led to moves by those associated with different power blocs in the now dissolved Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) — Chavez's party and the largest pro-Chavez group until the PSUV — to make moves towards controlling selection of promoters. These promoters went on to become de facto organisers of a large number of the local battalions.
At the same time, the aggressive discourse of Chavez who called on existing pro-Chavez groups not willing or reluctant to dissolve and become part of the new party "to go over to the ranks of the opposition", increased scepticism among some groups about joining the PSUV.
Such groups, such as the Venezuelan Communist Party, saw the dangers of dissolving what they had built up over decades, especially in a context where many could see the same power blocs and right-wing elements from the MVR reappearing in the PSUV.
5.7 million people registered to become members of the PSUV between April and June, a massive display of the deeply felt sentiment for political unity.
Yet, the actual numbers who turned up to meetings of the local battalions (a requirement of membership) was much lower. While PSUV spokespeople claimed 1.5 million people were participating in the battalions, most local activists agree that the real figure was less than half that number.
Some of this was to be expected, given the different levels of commitment, consciousness and time among the great mass of supporters of the revolution. However it is certain that the massive number of registrations, which in some states exceeded the number that who had voted for Chavez in the December 2006 elections, was in some areas the result in part of "stacking" and pressure.
Problems also arose because already existing local leaderships formed through years of community work were overlooked as promoters were imposed from above. Many feared the PSUV would become one more space to fight it out for positions in the bureaucracy, leading many activists to devote their efforts elsewhere.
Problems were compounded with the establishment of a disciplinary committee in July — making the PSUV perhaps the first party in history to have a disciplinary committee before it had even decided on a constitution.
As evidence began to emerge of competing power blocs and left and right factions, PSUV officials went on a concerted campaign to deny this reality, arguing that no factions existed or were allowed — creating the image of a monolithic party where no debate was to be tolerated.
Cases of battalions being "kidnapped" by "aspiring leaders" linked to the old power blocs came to light as elections for spokespeople and delegates began to occur in October. In some cases this lead to violent clashes.
By this time many spokespeople were being elected from meetings of less than 30 people in battalions that were supposed to have 300 members. This situation contributed to the lack lustre campaigning of some sections of Chavismo in the referendum campaign.
Yet in spite of all these problems, the PSUV has until now provided an important space for activists to discuss politics and exchange ideas, creating a previously lacking communication network.
Despite the best attempts by the emerging power elites to kidnap the PSUV in order to advance their interests, many agree that grassroots leaders and left currents are well represented at the founding congress, or at least well enough to make their presence felt.
The thoroughly revolutionary content of the draft program and statement of principles are another positive sign. Of course, these are simply words on paper, but these documents can provide a basis to fight for a genuinely revolutionary party — in practice.
The "rebellion of the battalions" against the provisional leadership of the PSUV in the aftermath of the referendum was another example that the bureaucrats haven't been able to get it all their own way.
Delegates have already voted to reopen discussion on the way the congress functions, as they feel the methodology set out by the organising committee is not the most conducive to ensuring wide ranging democratic discussions in the battalions.
Ultima Noticias reported on January 23 that the congress had also voted to allow media access to the congress. "Sometimes it seems that they don't want people to know what is happening in the congress. The governors fear losing their positions because that is where they get their money from" said Henry Soto, a delegate from the state of Falcon. He added that he regretted the fact that some delegates "were imposed in order to maintain quotas of power".
While reasons for scepticism remain, the movement behind this new party has far from lost its initial spirit. While those that are afraid of facing the ranks begin to publicly announce their candidature for the elections for mayors and governors later this year, the ranks are focusing on the congress. Chavez has repeatedly stated his refusal to appoint candidates from above, as he use to.
Acknowledging some of the errors, Chavez has withdrawn his call for all Chavista parties to dissolve, instead calling for an alliance of all "patriotic and revolutionary" forces to fight the elections. He has also publicly stated that tendencies and currents are part of the new party.
There is now a proposal to call this the Revolutionary Bolivarian Party for Socialism, recognition that full unity is yet to be achieved.
What will be crucial over the next few weeks is that the battalions organise themselves in such a way as to guarantee full discussions and to ensure delegates represent their views and not that of various bureaucrats. One important issue will be that of the selection of membership to the new party.
It seems unlikely that either the right or left wing of Chavismo will be able to win a complete victory, however the struggle at the congress will go a long way to determining which forces get the upper hand. Some compromise may be necessary, however democratic elections and structuring of the party around a good program in order to win back those that have drifted away is a task that cannot be postponed.
[Federico Fuentes is a member of the Australian Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance, and is part of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau. He also works for Miranda International Centre on its "The Political Instrument for the 21st Century" program. English translations of the draft program and statement of principles are posted on the Links e-journal, www.dsp.org.au/links.]