The US based Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) recently released a report in February detailing the amazing improvements in economic and social indicators in Venezuela during the 10 years of Hugo Chavez's revolutionary administration.
Since 2003, real (inflation-adjusted) GDP has almost doubled, growing by 94.7% in five years. The poverty rate has halved and the number of households living in extreme poverty has decreased by 72%. Millions of Venezuelans now have access to free health care which they did not have before.
Massive educational programs have virtually eliminated illiteracy and greatly increased school enrolments, especially for higher education, which has more than doubled.
The CEPR report does not shy away from giving credit for these advances to the progressive policies of the Chavez administration. For example, the major economic gains are attributed to the government's taking control of the national oil company PDVSA in 2003, and redirecting the profits generated to meet social needs.
Various social missions implemented by the government are mentioned in the report. Health improvements are credited to the public school meals program, the subsidised government food stores and the expansion of community health care centres.
Education programs, such as Mission Ribas and Mission Robinson, are recognised for their achievements in educating adults.
All of these achievements have certainly aided the poor and oppressed in Venezuela, but by themselves they do not amount to socialism — a democratically planned, socially owned economy — even while they point in that direction.
Some left-wing groups in Australia, such as Socialist Alternative, have rightly acknowledged these gains, but they refuse to recognise the role that the Chavez leadership plays in mobilising Venezuelans to take the lead in the revolution.
They argue that Chavez is leading a "top-down" form of socialism, and that he will inevitably become a "brake" on revolutionary progress.
Understanding the revolutionary base of "Chavismo" requires an understanding of anti-imperialism in Latin America and of Chavez's own political history.
Venezuela's struggle against US imperialism's political and economic domination won the support of the oppressed poor and working class majority who could see that foreign oppression is a hindrance to their own development.
Even sections of the Latin American elite sometimes support increasing national sovereignty, if only so that they gain at the expense of the foreign capitalists.
The mobilisation of the masses is necessary to drive back imperialism, but the local elites will always try to control the masses so that the movement against foreign oppression doesn't progress towards outright socialist revolution that threatens the local elite too.
Chavez was first elected in 1998 on a platform of reform for the poor and the rejection of imperialism. At this time he was not a socialist revolutionary and neither were the masses (or sections of the elite) that supported him.
However, as he attempted to implement the progressive plans encapsulated in the program of the "Bolivarian revolution", he inevitably encountered powerful imperialist and local capitalist opposition determined to halt the further radicalisation of the movement.
This pro-capitalist resistance culminated in a failed military coup attempt in April 2002, and a bosses lockout in the oil industry in December 2002.
These experiences caused Chavez to conclude that socialism is necessary for the real emancipation of the poor and oppressed. As such, he constantly urges Venezuelans to take the socialist path — where working people take democratic control of society for themselves.
Chavez began his political career as a nationalist. The revolutionary movement still contains some more right-wing elements from Chavez's old party — the Movement for the Fifth Republic. Chavez's orientation, along with millions of Venezuelans, has changed, but not all "Chavistas" have radicalised with him.
The vestiges of bureaucracy have been a constant impediment to genuine socialist advancement. The "endogenous right" within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has impeded the proper democratic development of the party.
Though Chavez rose from the leftist sections of the military, more conservative forces still retain some influence in the officer caste. Chavez has attempted to reform the military to place greater emphasis on popular militias.
These facts should not deter socialists from supporting the Chavez government or the Venezuelan revolution. Ignoring the complex reality of the worker's movement could lead to dangerous strategic mistakes.
The defeat of the 2007 constitutional amendment referendum that sought to allow greater moves towards socialism was unexpected, even by the US-backed opposition. The event served as an indicator of the power of the internal bureaucratic opposition and the relative disorganisation and the uneven consciousness of workers.
Following the defeat, Chavez said that the government had jumped ahead of the mass movement. He vowed to continue advancing toward socialism, but more work would be necessary on the ground to prepare the way forward.
Socialist Alternative recognises the bureaucratic obstructions in Venezuela, but then infers that the Chavez government itself is not revolutionary. For Socialist Alternative, Chavez is a reformist who only wants to improve aspects of the system without changing it fundamnetally, and thus the revolution is unlikely to succeed.
It either does not recognise, or downplays, the grassroots initiatives that the Chavez administration has undertaken.
It should instead recognise that the Chavez government is revolutionary, but that important sections of the state machinery remain a battleground between revolutionary and bourgeois interests. The people have repeatedly elected a socialist leader, but they are not yet strong and organised enough to fully overcome key parts of the capitalist system, including the bourgeois state.
Chavez led the call for the establishment of the PSUV, the massive united left party with over 5 million members.
The PSUV has tremendous potential to become a vehicle for the political ambitions of the working class.
The mass workers' party is there, but at the moment the bureaucrats are more organised than the grassroots base. What is needed for the "revolutionising" of the party is the rank and file to organise itself to defeat the bureaucrats.
The youth wing of the party, the JPSUV, serves as an example of the revolutionary potential of the masses and how they can achieve victories despite bureaucratic hindrances.
The JPSUV was founded in September 2008. At the founding congress the delegates were presented with statutes, which they were to discuss. The documents were prepared by party officials and had not been distributed earlier, so the delegates were unable to discuss them first with their constituencies.
The delegates refused to accept many top-down statutes and the bureaucrats were forced to accept most of the delegates' reforms. Experiences such as these give rank-and-file activists valuable experiences to help further democratise their organisations.
Venezuela's communal councils are another vehicle for the people's liberation. These are grassroots councils based on 200-400 families, or 20 families in rural areas.
They have direct control over their local areas, managing their own projects and controlling funds through general assemblies and elected committees.
Chavez has said they are the potential building blocks for a new revolutionary state. Chavez has also proposed the formation of "socialist communes" that would be based on elected representatives from the communal councils. A number of pilot commune projects are currently underway in Venezuela.
Thousands of workers' cooperatives already exist and are supported by the Chavez government. Reforms to grant industrially-based workers' councils a legal framework were among those defeated in the constitutional referendum of 2007.
Growing socialist 'roots'
Unfortunately, sectarian leftists prefer to condemn the Chavez government, rather than give credit for the revolutionary gains.
We can recognise rightist elements are hampering the revolution; to ignore this would be counter-productive.
However, we should not criticise the revolution simply because it is unfinished either.
The Chavez government has implemented numerous reforms that open up space for further progress. The PSUV and communal councils allow the mass movement to hone its skills in preparation for the major struggles that the Chavez government knows are coming on the road to socialism.
As Chavez said in October 2008 at the World Meeting of Intellectuals and Artists in Defense of Humanity in Caracas, "the spectre of socialism haunts Latin America … But this ethereal phenomenon urgently demands incarnation. We are called upon to create those conditions within a process of the comprehensive integration of ideology, culture, society, politics and economy.
"In that way, socialism will not only become incarnated and grow roots, but also will be able to consolidate and endure. We can impel that incarnation, that revolutionary wave that is arising in the region."
[Duncan Roden is a member of the socialist youth organisation Resistance. Visit www.resistance.org.au .]