The Venezuelan ambassador to the UK has written an article for the Guardian’s CiF site defending Hugo Chavez and the recent elections in Venezuela as democratic. From a “Hands Off” campaign to David Aaronovitch, this is an issue which draws the attention of people on the Left. Some want to believe in a Venezuelan revolution as the “return of history”, proof that the socialist emancipatory hasn’t died. Similarly, others need to prove that Chavez is Mugabe in disguise, to vindicate their own treachery to the project of freeing working people.
How does one decide who is right? My own socialist instincts don’t require the success of a Left-nationalist to prop them up; it’s only common sense that in so delicate an endeavour, almost anything could go wrong with Chavez and his plans. The working classes of Venezuela are obviously behind him – their mobilisation in his defence is proof of that – but they aren’t “in control” of the country. Half measures won’t work, in achieving a working socialist democracy, but whole measures won’t be achieved at Chavez’ direction.
As the Soviets found in the aftermath of the civil war, proletarian democracy cannot be commanded out of a vacuum. It is born amid struggle, out of necessity, and like any democratic mindset, it can be shattered. I don’t think this is a controversial idea; many of the discussions surrounding Weimar and Nazi Germany centre on how, in the aftermath of the German Revolution, democratic behaviours weren’t embedded deeply enough to sustain Weimar against the challenge raised by the extreme Right and Left.
Naturally I don’t subscribe to any description so preposterously facile; it’s true to say that, but “democracy” under capitalism only exists after struggle by the working classes. In the UK, it took a revolution to get us part of the way there and then the Chartists to push us along again. In Germany, that struggle was lost. In Venezuela, democracy was ruthlessly constrained prior to Chavez; the anti-Chavez spin of RCTV, for example, makes the FOX network look positively reasonable, as a former RCTV editor attests.
The structure of any system based on private property gives those with lots of property an advantage, but that is not to deny the role of agency. A teleological view of history doesn’t make a struggle any easier to win; it is still a human fight, but one which must be oriented to reflect the structural difficulties that must be overcome. Yet Chavez has based his government on trying to constrain the excesses of capitalism rather than abolish them. Every government that does that eventually succumbs to electoral defeat.
Far from being a mere truism, it has been the case in every evolved democracy: the US, Britain, France and so forth. Disillusionment must invariably set in if a movement has to expend lots of energy even to tread water.
A government faced with that has two choices: to accept electoral defeat or to shut down the democratic route by which they obtained power – even if that “democratic” route is the formal democracy of modern capitalism. It is this which makes the image of Chavez, slowly encroaching upon formal democracy, so believable. On the other hand, the opposition case to Chavez has been stated around the world, overstated probably. Aaronovitch I mentioned earlier – and his descent into a patchwork of libellous assertions is just sad.
Some of the accusations can be read on the CiF article quoted above, here or here. Apparently there had been threats by Chavez that any state which voted for the opposition would be cut off from food. That seems to be unfounded, outside of the propaganda stands of anti-Chavez opposition. However Chavez did role in troops to an airport in Sucre, has been attacking the opposition leader Rosales as a criminal who should go to prison and did threaten to deploy troops to “defend” the election results.
Chavez also threatened to shut down any television station which gave out early election results. It’s important to consider the context, however. In Bolivia, those opposed to reforms are now simply trying to repartition the country to suit their own views – much in the same way that Ulster Unionists sought to do to overturn Asquith’s Home Rule Bill. There’s every chance that right next door, the opposition will try to do the same in Venezuela – and that should be resisted.
I don’t necessarily think it should be resisted by troops; in fact resistance to a partition of either country needs to come from below.
Similarly, Chavez is working in a country where the opposition have no scruples about using force, about using their coterie of media moguls and about screaming their head off without regard for the truth. We have at least one party like that in the UK; we call them the British National Party. The defeat in the referendum was accepted by Chavez last year; he’s also survived 13 sets of national elections – the opposition during its forty years in power only better this by two sets. Chavez has only been in charge for ten years.
There are other things about Chavez which seem less salubrious – such as suspected intimidation of trade unionists.
Many criticisms of Chavez seem to revolve around the his supporters’ penchant for looting. After the troops secured the airport in Sucre, a Chavista mob looted the opposition Governor’s offices. Chavez is accused of buying the votes of “the mob” and of using criminal investigations at election time to demonize his opponents. Even issues such as Chavez being a rather offensive individual get dragged up in the name of the anti-Chavez cause. Some of this is valid, some is just silly.
None of it causes me to support the 2-D movement or the other anti-Chavistas. I think this is the key point. We can object to Chavez for sure, and there seems to be plenty to object to, starting with the fact that Chavez isn’t a Marxist. However the alternative to Chavez is not the peaceable restoration of a tolerant, liberal democracy, much as the alternative to Lenin’s Politburo was not a fully function Soviet democracy or a Constitutional Assembly. In the one case, the alternative was the tyranny of Kornilov’s successors. In the other, who knows?
Pedro Carmona is alive and well in Florida and even if an opposition electoral victory is not an excuse for his return at the head of an army (no doubt to “restore order” after the Chavistas get excited), you can bet that his agenda of dissolving the constitution, the supreme court, the national assembly and abolishing a great deal of Chavez’ redistributive programmes will be the agenda followed. If the opposition get to portray that as “the will of the people” then the fault lies with Chavez and the failure of the Left now.
Right now is the chance for Chavez to embed his reforms and to destroy the economic basis of the opposition. All Venezuelan industries should be given over to workers’ control at factory level. Journalists should be free to pursue any political byline without fear for their job or of government repression – but that should be contingent upon the agreement of the printers’ unions and the broadcasting unions to actually publish their material. Not the bureaucrats of the unions either, but the rank and file of each shop, as determined by a vote.
This isn’t unfair or tyrannical, it’s the correction of the power individuals wield over civil society by virtue of capital accumulation rather than by virtue of election.
Is it going to happen? Probably not. Power transmits its own mindset to people, particularly when they can use a state apparatus to appeal to the broad mass of people rather than relying on democratic institutions. This is just how the Bolsheviks went from being subversive radical democrats to building a totalitarian state. It’s how life for Soviet leaders changed from seventy families trying to bring up their children in the Kremlin whilst building a socialist government to the ossification of bureaucracy.
Chavez seems to have been caught up in that mindset and now, before it is either consolidated or overthrown, is the chance for a real and lasting socialism in Venezuela. When we’re reading of the papers about the Venezuelan opposition to Chavez, or reading his supporters’ justifications, that window is what we should have our eyes ever fixed on.