Marxism and the Venezuelan revolution
"Today a new epoch begins", Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared in his victory speech on December 3, having won the presidential election with the highest vote in Venezuelan history on a platform of deepening the struggle to build socialism. "That new era is the new socialist democracy. That era is the new socialist society."
Chavez has insisted that 2007 will be a year of a revolutionary offensive to greatly deepen the transformation of Venezuela that has begun through the Bolivarian revolution underway since Chavez was first elected in 1998. The struggle to challenge corporate interests and redistribute oil wealth to the impoverished majority has already brought about impressive social gains, and has been accompanied by increasing moves to organise working people into institutions of direct democracy. With the expansion of the state sector in conjunction with the formation of more than 100,000 cooperatives, the problems of the poor majority have begun to be tackled.
Globally, these gains have captured the imagination of many who believe a better world is possible. The growing radicalisation of the revolution, based on the increasing mobilisation of working people themselves (with the largest pro-revolution demonstration yet of 2.5 million the week before the election), has further focused attention on this attempt to create an anti-capitalist alternative in a world where corporate interests drive wars and environmental destruction.
Venezuela still faces big problems with corruption and poverty, and much of the economy remains capitalist. Yet the revolution already provides crucial lessons for radicals. Firstly, it has shown that it is possible to challenge corporate interests and begin to organise the economy in the interests of the poor over the rich. Second, the struggle to implement pro-poor policies has come up against the resistance of the capitalist class — those who own the means of producing wealth — leading to the conclusion, first expressed by Chavez in January 2005, that the alternative to the status quo is socialism — a democratically planned economy run according to human need, not private profit.
Thirdly, the Venezuelan revolution has shown that it isn't enough to just win elections through parliament to achieve social change. The Venezuelan revolution has discovered this the hard way, with the old institutions, dominated by a corrupt bureaucracy, sabotaging the process of change. These institutions have had to be increasingly transformed — as with the struggle to convert the armed forces into an institution that serves the people rather than represses them — or else new institutions based directly on working people, such as the communal councils, have had to be created.
These are all key lessons that are embodied in the revolutionary ideology of Marxism. It is no surprise, then, that as the revolution has radicalised, Chavez has increasingly referred to Marxist ideas.
This is part of a broad range of influences on the revolutionary movement — Chavez himself is famously eclectic. As part of their struggle to find their own path forward according to Venezuela's needs, Venezuelan revolutionaries have based themselves on the concept of national liberation hero Simon Rodriguez that "we invent or we err".
The revolution is called "Bolivarian" after Simon Bolivar. Born in Caracas, Bolivar led the liberation of much of South America against Spanish colonialism. Before he died, he recognised the danger of the US replacing Spain as an oppressing power seeking to control the continent, writing that the US "seems destined by providence" to condemn South America to misery "in the name of liberty". His principles of independence from foreign domination and Latin American unity have guided Venezuela's struggle to break US domination over Venezuela and promote Latin American integration.
Venezuelan revolutionaries also point to the influence of indigenous culture. Ideas drawn from Christianity also play a role, with Chavez calling Jesus Christ the first socialist. However, Marxist ideas are an increasingly prominent part of the mix.
Since explaining his conclusion to thousands of radicals attending the World Social Forum in January 2005 that it was necessary to "transcend capitalism", and that "capitalism cannot be overcome within capitalism, but through socialism", Chavez has repeatedly referred to Marx's argument that the world faced a choice between "socialism and barbarism". Chavez has added that today, because of the environmental catastrophe caused by capitalism, time to make this choice is running out.
The Venezuelan revolution also draws on the ideas of Argentinean-born Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara — who helped lead the Cuban Revolution — especially Che's emphasis on the need to create new human beings guided by socialist morality. The government has mass distributed Che's writings attacking bureaucracy. Chavez has pointed to Cuba as an important source of inspiration, while insisting Venezuela will construct its own model of socialism according to its own reality.
Since his re-election in December, Chavez has increased his identification with Marxism, even suggesting that the heads of the Catholic Church should read the works of Marx and Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin as well as the Bible, in order to find out about socialism. He has also referred to himself as a "communist", and declared himself a supporter of the ideas of Leon Trotsky, a key leader of the Russian Revolution who fought against the degeneration of the revolution into a bureaucratic dictatorship headed by Joseph Stalin.
In particular, Chavez has said that Trotsky was right in arguing, against Stalin, that the revolution had to be international. The Chavez government has both used the international stage to urge a global struggle against the crimes of imperialism and has signed agreements with other nations based on cooperation, not competition.
Also, in calling for a new revolutionary party that unites the most conscious militants across the country into one group to lead the struggle forward — reminiscent of the concept of the Leninist "vanguard party" — Chavez has referred to the example of the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin before its Stalinist degeneration.
This revival of Marxism comes after its supposed consignment to history's dustbin as a discredited and failed ideology — a misguided utopian ideology at best and responsible for the horrors of Stalinist totalitarianism at worst. However, as the left-wing British Labour Party figure Tony Benn once commented, blaming Marx for the crimes of Stalin is like blaming Jesus Christ for the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The abominable Stalinist dictatorships that claimed to base themselves on Marxism created systems a long way from the sort of society Marx argued for. Marx believed socialism should be a massive extension, rather than restriction, of democracy.
For Marx, the emancipation of the working class must be an act of the working class itself. The promotion of participatory democracy in Venezuela is based on a similar principle, with Chavez arguing that to overcome poverty "you must give power to the poor". Chavez has argued that the "new socialism of the 21st century" must be "a democratic, humanist socialism", that will be very different from the so-called socialism that existed in the Soviet Union.
Marxism is also not a dogma or a set of prescriptions, but rather a guide to action. It is the ideology of the socialist revolution, arguing that the solution to the crimes of the capitalist system can be overcome by replacing private ownership of the means of production with collective ownership. Marxism argues that the working people need to overthrow the political rule of the capitalist class and create a new state based directly on their own power in order to begin constructing socialism. This describes the struggle currently playing out in Venezuela. For this reason, as the revolution continues to advance, it is likely that the influence of Marxism will increase with it, not to the exclusion of other sources of inspiration but in conjunction with them.
Not everyone agrees with this. In an article on the Venezuelan revolutionary website Aporrea.org, Mary Pili Hernandez argued that neither Chavez nor the Bolivarian revolution are Marxist, and instead counterposed the ideas of Bolivar, presenting some quotes from Chavez to back this up.
The problem is that this ignores the fact that both the revolution and the ideas of Chavez, as its central leader, have been constantly developing. While Chavez quotes and claims inspiration from a wide range of sources, meaning often his statements can appear contradictory, taking the general line of his speeches in recent times, it is obvious that Marxism is playing an increasing role.
In particular, it is not a case of Bolivarianism versus Marxism. There is no need to counterpose the two. The ideas of Bolivarianism are based on the need to challenge the system of imperialism, which exploits the Third World and leaves it underdeveloped. Through the struggle to challenge US imperialism, which sees Venezuela as nothing but a source of cheap oil, it became clear that to develop the country along pro-people lines you need to break with capitalism and build socialism. This is because so much of the economy is in the hands of First World (especially US) corporate interests, so any move to establish national sovereignty over resources means taking it out of the hands of these corporations, increasingly attacking the capitalist system.
In this way, the struggle for national liberation embodied in the ideology of Bolivarianism has opened the road to the socialist revolution embodied by Marxism. Chavez has said that if Bolivar was alive today, he would be a socialist, which is a recognition that the ideas Bolivar fought for today can only be realised through socialism.
Far from being outdated, the ideology of Marxism remains relevant. Genuine Marxism, as opposed to Stalinism, has always been a non-dogmatic and democratic ideology, that can be developed and applied according to the nature of the different struggles that unfold, as the struggle-in-progress that is the Bolivarian revolution shows.