Debating the Bolivarian Revolution

Hugo Chávez’s victory set into motion the Pink Tide’s deepest attempt at social transformation. What happened?

Hugo Chávez holds up a book by Noam Chomsky

Hugo Chávez holds up a book by Noam Chomsky "Hegemony or Survival"

On Hugo Chávez

JM

Who was that fiery head of state? A committed radical or something more ambiguous?

EM

I was eleven or twelve years old when Chávez was elected. He was my main inspiration for thinking about the possibility of a different kind of society.

In Venezuela, the wealth disparity is very obvious — you have big mansions and, right behind them, the hills are full of slums. Then Chávez came to power with this progressive rhetoric, this commitment to the poor. I mean, he himself was the poor son of a single mother from Barinas. Part of my family is from that same rural town. Some people in my family actually knew him, or knew his brother or his grandma. It all just seemed amazing, that someone like him could become the president of a country.

GW

Chávez put socialism back on the international agenda. He showed that socialism could represent a direct challenge to neoliberalism, which was the dominant paradigm when he came into office in 1999.

NS

Chávez’s movement also renewed the struggle against imperialism and updated it, in a very important historical moment. Plus, for many ordinary Venezuelans, the movement called into question the common-sense understanding of how an economy should be run.

EM

Really, what Chávez represented was the first big “fuck you” to neoliberalism in the region. Chávez kicked the International Monetary Fund out entirely — like “you’re gone, out of the country” — and later he went to the United Nations and called George W. Bush a devil. I mean, wow. That was amazing — probably the best day of my life.

GW

Of course, those are all accomplishments on the ideological level. We should also look at concrete accomplishments, like lower unemployment and poverty rates, higher health and education rates, and the implementation of all kinds of social programs.

There were political improvements, too. For example, deepening participatory democracy by refor-ming the Constitution — which improved representative democracy greatly. But also advancing direct democracy through the creation of communal councils, communes, all kinds of different mechanisms.

NS

Obviously, Chávez had an enormous influence on the Bolivarian process in Venezuela. We can’t discount that. But this was not his movement alone — he was building on a long tradition of struggle in Venezuela and that tradition continues now, even after his death.

EM

Right. And certainly at this point, with four years of distance from Chávez’s death, we can think quite critically about him. In a lot of ways, Chávez was actually pushed toward socialism by a militant popular movement. He didn’t start out there.

I mean, first, in 1989, there was the Caracazo — a spontaneous rebellion in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, caused by frustration with structural adjustment. Ten years later, Chávez was elected, and then in 2002, when the Right tried to take power in a coup, the country rose up again to protect Chávez. That was a significant trans-formation in and of itself — just fortifying and galvanizing that popular movement.

A similar movement also came to the fore during the bosses’ strike of 2002 and 2003, when the intran-sigent conservatives in the oil company tried to shut down all production. It was a disaster for the state. But then the workers started taking over, restarting production on their own terms to ensure their government wouldn’t fail. Again in 2004, with the recall referendum: the opposition called for a recall, and thenChávez beat them with his largest, most radical majority yet.

Only after all that did Chávez start talking about socialism. Before, he was trying to figure out a Tony Blair–style “Third Way” — trying to reform capitalism into something gentler. He thought he could fix the system, like by using the state’s immense oil wealth to make sure Venezuela didn’t have a completely devastated population. But then he started talking about socialism in 2005, at the World Social Forum in Brazil, in the middle of the Pink Tide.

GW

It’s true that Chávez was pushed in that direction. But the thing is, he laid the seeds for that push himself. His original vision — his original blueprint — actually included many of the things that would later come to the fore-front of his program. The first draft of his political program already included the idea of creating a “protagonist participatory democracy.” That was embedded in the 1999 Constitution, even before his broader turn to socialism.

The real shift for Chávez happened with the coup attempt against him, because up until that point he really thought that some kind of compromise with the capitalist class and the Venezuelan opposition was possible. The attempted coup radicalized him just as it radicalized his supporters.

The opposition just wouldn’t let go, even though Chávez’s program was ratified in elections over and over again. Each moment of resistance by the opposition pushed Chávez more to the left, so that in 2005 he finally wholeheartedly embraced socialism — and Marxism as well.

EM

Okay, Latin America was turning left, so Chávez’s ideology adapted. But, unfortunately, what didn’t change was his hyper-leadership role. It remained a one-man show in Venezuela.

That was a problem for the Left, because if you looked at various speeches, various statements, you could find very different versions of Chávez. On the one hand, you could find a very radical socialist. And then, on the other hand, there was another Chávez — a guy who said things like, “Okay, the bourgeoisie is bad and all, but there’s still a local layer of capitalists who are for the revolution, and we’re going to cooperate with them.”

I’m sure his own thinking was changing a lot during this time — he was being influenced by the masses. But that’s where the question of the Left comes in. The masses could influence Chávez through spontaneous, explosive actions. But there wasn’t a coherent enough counterforce on the Left that could really push him forward in any sustained way. So, as a result, Chávez was able to move his ideology here and there and here again, depending on whatever suited the moment.

On Chavismo

JM

Just how socialist was Venezuela’s “twenty-first century socialism”?

NS

The Bolivarian project was contradictory in many ways. It redistributed wealth and reorganized state control over the economy, but without establishing workers’ power and in some cases continuing to work closely with business interests. At the beginning, it was hard to know if those were just temporary contradictions or if they were actually central to the way the Bolivarian movement was going to implement socialism.

GW

Well, I think Chávez’s socialism was based on at least four different pillars. The first is the idea of participatory democracy. The core notion was there from the beginning: to create a participatory democracy, you first need to compensate for the problems of representative democracy. I think that remains a very valid and forceful critique of business as usual — and the fact that it is embedded in the 1999 Constitution is remarkable.

The second pillar is basically a program of social justice. One of the first lines of the Constitution says that Venezuela is a state of law and of justice. So you have a higher principle than the law. Plus, this principle is expansive enough to include not just formal justice but also social justice, so it can be invoked to support things like leveling wealth through land reform, through the reform of the oil industry, through social programs of all kinds to benefit the poor.

The third pillar has to do with the whole idea of national sovereignty. Actually, I would lump three concepts together here — national sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and regional integration. The fourth pillar is international solidarity more generally. These four pillars encapsulate the main points of Chávez’s vision.

EM

I don’t want to debate Chávez’s intentions. I mean, I wish I had met the guy. I was inspired by his government. So there’s nothing moralistic about my criticism here. I just don’t think . . . well, I just don’t think that’s socialism, or at least a version of socialism that can win.

Chávez used to talk about the “five motors of socialism.” These were reform programs, implemented through the state, that he imagined could drive a gradual socialist transition. The main one, the most important one, was about building “communal power.”

Basically, the idea was that people would start acting differently — start making decisions democratically and taking things into their own hands — in small pockets. That would eventually reveal a better way to organize society, which would make the state irrelevant. People would just see that socialism was better. The challenge was to make sure the state didn’t squander that project but actually funded it and encouraged it — with the end goal of doing away with state leadership entirely.

Chávez’s thinking was that he could take over a capitalist state through an electoral process. Then, he could help foster the social revolution by using the position he held in the state. But I think that presupposes a lot of things that are unstable and untrue.

GW

I disagree. The fact is, historically, the government is oftentimes the main obstacle to revolution, right? But in Venezuela, suddenly you had a different kind of government, one that said, “Hey, you can create these communes, you can organize yourselves, and so on.” Isn’t that the government giving the tools to the people to participate in that revolution? To make their own revolution, in fact?

I think that’s what the government was doing. And of course, to a certain extent, that means trying to propose a program from above. But not entirely! The idea was always about giving the people the tools they needed to participate in the process and shape that project for themselves.

NS

One thing that people misunderstand about the Bolivarian process is the nature of the state. We can’t just reuse a concept of the state that suggests it represents one thing all the time in every moment. We have to pay attention to speci-ficity, to historicity, to what was possible in terms of how people participated in — and actually broadened — state formation under Chávez.

In many ways, the Bolivarian project was a successful people’s movement. People from very poor communities entered state institutions in large numbers. Throughout this whole process, it was very difficult to separate what was a community project and what was an official state project. People who talk about whether this was a top-down or a bottom-up process really miss the fact that, in many ways, people were moving between those realms.

EM

My criticism is that, in Venezuela, we’re talking about an inherently capitalist state. Even Chávez eventually agreed with that criticism! In 2012 he announced, “Okay, we’re still under capitalism. We still have all the same structures. We need a more dramatic change.”

NS

But a state is not a cohesive, coherent object. There are plenty of Marxist analyses that see the state as internally contradictory, with many interests at work within it. And yes, at a foundational level, capitalist interests continued to sit at the root of many Venezuelan state institutions. But there was also fierce competition over what the future of those interests should be, just as there was fierce competition over the class character and leadership of those institutions.

We need to understand the Venezuelan state during the Bolivarian process as a “processual state” — not a clear-cut entity with an obvious and unitary interest, but a terrain of struggle.

EM

But all that was only possible because the state was Chávez! Especially after 2005, when he was the undisputed leader. He filled a hyper-leadership role; there was no real opposition at the top of the hierarchy.

GW

True. But still, in many ways, I think the Chávez example is better than the idea that we can somehow accomplish a revolution without dual power.

EM

Marx’s main idea was that, in order to transcend capitalism and create a highly democratic society, you need the self-emancipation of the working class. A revolutionary process isn’t just working-class people going on the defensive to defend a government that likes them. A revolutionary process takes a far more offensive approach.

I think there were moments when something like that could have happened in Venezuela. There were moments when the possibility of workers’ power was clear.

Take the steelworkers, for example. In 2008, after a contract negotiation broke down, they demanded the nationalization of Ternium-Sidor, the biggest steel company in Venezuela. And Chávez said, “Okay, we’ll nationalize it!” The problem was the firm was controlled by Argentine capital, and so when Argentine president and Chávez ally Nestor Kirchner called him and said, “Hey, it’s our company; this isn’t going to go well for you,” Chávez just backed off.

Or take the oil strike. In 2002 when the national oil company, controlled by the pro-business Right, tried to choke out the Chávez government by halting production, workers were able to essentially run the company without their bosses — and we’re talking about an industry as central and impactful as oil in Venezuela.

The socialist left needs to foster that kind of thing. We can work with a friendly state for a while, but we can’t just use the capitalist state to fund socialism. The main thing, really — and it seems simplified, but we shouldn’t think of it as simple at all — is the self-emancipation of the working class. That’s some-thing we need to recover as socialists and as Marxists, especially in Latin America.

NS

I’m skeptical that there’s any version of working-class self-emancipation that isn’t always already interlaced with cross-class dynamics. People forget that there was a real struggle over the class character of Bolivarianism and its leadership throughout this whole process. Painting the issue as a matter of top-down state implementation versus bottom-up local self-determination doesn’t actually capture that struggle inside state institutions at all.

As poor people, often with no formal education, increasingly entered state institutions — which were traditionally run by a managerial middle-class population — even deep allies of the project struggled over what the role of the middle class might be. And it’s true, unfortunately, that in many cases I observed, middle-class people were not willing to step aside, or even work together with barrio organizations, if that meant vacating a leadership role.

Plus, at the same time, there were class inequalities emerging within poor communities precisely because some elements of the Bolivarian project were so successful. Some people were well positioned to gain access to education and insert themselves into new networks and so on, while others were less well positioned to do that. So there was real class conflict within the revolution — and this ultimately eroded the movement’s ability to confront crises when they emerged.

GW

I see that as one of the key problems with this whole process. It’s a problem of consciousness, really — the lack of a shared understanding among the population about how these projects should function. And I suppose that could be attributed to the lack of a larger overarching vision about how to get to socialism.

On the Current Crisis

JM

After Chávez, where does Venezuela go?

NS

I think any analysis of the current crisis has to be connected to an analysis of global capitalism. It seems sort of ridiculous to me when people talk about the “failure of socialism in Venezuela.” I mean there were failures, of course, but the crisis is really a consequence of how difficult it is to correct economic dependency. That’s a really long-term project. It can’t be resolved in one or two decades.

EM

One thing we have to keep in mind is that Chávez was able to do all the things he did because he was in power during the “Golden Decade” — a period of high demand for oil, during which oil sold for a very high price. During this period, the state wasn’t lacking in funds, so it was able to mask some of the problems that could emerge from the contradictions of Chavismo. Then, when [Nicolás] Maduro came to power, there was the coincidence of Chávez dying and the economy just collapsing, all at once.

Suddenly there was global crisis everywhere. That’s how capitalism works. Crises are going to happen. There’s one happening now. And that means Maduro has to confront the main contradictions of Chavismo and of the Bolivarian project head-on. There’s no masking them anymore.

GW

But the main problem is that the opposition took advantage of the situation by launching a full-on assault on the economy! And, really, this assault was further enabled by a problem whose seeds were sown as early as 2003, after the oil-industry shutdown. I’m talking about the policy of fixing the exchange rate.

That policy only worked at a time when the price of oil was relatively high. As soon as the price of oil went down, it created a massive problem. Maduro hung on to this fixed exchange rate in a situation in which it was no longer feasible to do so, and that made the opposition’s assault on the economy twice as effective.

As long as the government maintains this tiered exchange-rate system, they’re leaving a huge opening for the opposition to economically attack and undermine the government. In effect, what the government is doing through the exchange-rate policy is subsidizing products across the board. They have to recognize that Venezuela is not an island. If you’re massively subsidizing products, those products are going to go across the border and you’re going to have scarcity, especially in the context of price controls.

Instead, what the government should be doing is subsidizing people’s incomes. That added income is not going to be siphoned off to border countries, the way products will be. But the government still hasn’t moved away from that policy, for some reason.

EM

The way I see it, Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had two options after the crisis began: They could try to solve the crisis by doing what capitalist governments (both reformist and right-wing) do all the time — hammering through an austerity package in the hopes of restoring profits. Or they could choose to radicalize the revolution. That’s what Chávez was calling for at the end of his life — reactivate the base, democratize the party, turn to the commune.

But obviously, that radicalization to the left hasn’t happened under Maduro.

NS

We also need to recognize the Maduro government’s slide toward a very deep concentration of formal control. In a lot of ways, the Maduro government is challenging the continued operation of both procedural liberal democracy and participatory democracy in Venezuela.

People completely miss the point when they criticize Maduro by saying that democracy is under attack in Venezuela without thinking about what kind of “democracy” the opposition would impose. Defending a narrow procedural democracy without considering economic or social rights is an arid, irresponsible conversation. But still, even those allied with the government fear the rise of an authoritarian-style concentration of power right now.

There has also been a slow slide toward a return to neoliberal policies under Maduro. I think people in Venezuela who are allied with Chavismo are cognizant of that fact, and so feel themselves in a really difficult position.

GW

I don’t see neoliberal tools being implemented. As a matter of fact, Maduro did try to intensify the revolution by introducing the CLAPs, or Committees for Local Production and Distribution. That was a way of involving the population in everyday economic processes to compensate for the economic problems.

EM

But look at Maduro establishing free-trade zones — that’s clearly not left!

NS

To be honest, with the flawed economic policy and the various mistakes this government has made, it’s hard for me to read which way they’re going. I think it’s hard for anybody to read.

EM

Maduro’s government has run its course. It’s showing its limits. I don’t think the Left should be a part of that government. I don’t think the Left should think of it as our ally or the ally of the Venezuelan people. It’s sticking to the same old response to capitalist crisis, even though that response has been harmful for working people, for the poor.

NS

Still, as suspicious as people are of Maduro — as much as people are really suffering — many leftists in Venezuela feel that defending Maduro is the only way to stop the right wing.

EM

I’m not saying the whole Bolivarian process was a mistake — obviously it wasn’t a mistake. But we need to go toward something new. The process has obviously died. The model itself failed. At this point that’s clear. Now I think we need to move on to a much different model — a much more democratic one.

On Left Renewal

JM

What steps should be taken?

NS

Recently, a friend in Venezuela said something that really stuck with me: “The global left is incredibly cruel. They want a perfect revolution that is impossible to make.”

I think people feel abandoned in Venezuela. For a while there was incredible solidarity, all this excitement about Venezuela around the world. And they felt it! There was an influx of energy into the country — all kinds of people went to Venezuela wanting to contribute, to participate, to learn.

That has completely fallen off for a lot of reasons. But now all Venezuelans see from the international left is deep criticism. And Venezuelans are critical, too! They’re deeply critical of Maduro, even while some advocate unity. They recognize his authoritarian leanings. They’re not naive about the potential threats on the horizon. But they’re not naive about who they see as the enemy, either. In their rush to criticize Maduro, many folks have also written off Venezuelans who continue to struggle for social justice in a very complicated and messy context. We see a kind of fair-weather solidarity.

EM

The thing is — okay, how did the Caracazo happen? When it occurred, it was the most explosive reaction to neoliberal structural adjustment the region had seen. But it didn’t transform into any form of higher political organization, whether a party or some other form.

Instead, ten years later, we got Chávez — someone coming from the military who organized within a conspiratorial group of left-wing military elites. He came from a very poor background and he really wanted to change things. But for him, that didn’t mean forming a party with masses of people; it meant doing everything for the people because he had the means.

For the most part, the organized left went into the PSUV when Chávez formed it in 2007. It’s hard to characterize that as a mistake, because five million people joined all at once — the masses were moving. But now it’s hard to know where to go from there.

GW

Considering that it seems relatively unlikely that the PSUV will renovate itself from within, I think there might be a role for an outside force to play. An organized left-wing force, in coalition with the party or in a mode of critical support, could push the PSUV to renovate itself.

In fact, I think there have already been some promising developments in that direction. Maduro even gave a speech recently in which he recognized that the PSUV needs to be reorganized. I think that recognition comes precisely from the push from outside, from the Left.

EM

The revolutionary organization I’m most in contact with — Marea Socialista — first joined the PSUV with the condition that they would keep organizing as an independent organization outside the party. They split from the party recently, and it’s still unclear how much weight they carry now.

But I think that’s precisely what needs to happen — breaking from Chavismo and the PSUV. It’s time to take some actual lessons and rearticulate what a left solution could be. We need people to look to the Left as a place where there are solutions on offer. Chavismo isn’t doing that. It’s basically acting defensively.

NS

People I work with are pretty adamant that maintaining unity with Maduro, despite their criticisms of his government, is the only way forward. And I think they’ve come to this conclusion based on how they measure the power of the right wing, how they assess that threat.

So people will say, “We have to advance the revolution and renew a socialist horizon, but in the meantime we have to defend Maduro.” And they’re not happy about that. It’s a very reluctant commitment to unity.

On Lessons Learned

JM

What should we tell our children? What should we tell ourselves?

NS

In 2007, I was sitting in a crowded mall in downtown Caracas and a friend said to me, “You know, this revolution is just too easy.” He was talking about the project’s superficiality, so to speak — the easy availability of commodities at that moment, the fact that it seemed unnecessary even to challenge the oil economy. And, of course, there was the fact that people’s aspirations for upward class mobility were being realized, in some ways, by Bolivarianism.

He felt that in some respects the process had been very superficial, in that it didn’t force people to go through the necessary process of analyzing the system, creating solidarities, becoming militant. Of course, that’s not the whole story — many people were creating solidarities, many people were becoming militant. But it’s still something to keep in mind.

I think the example of the Bolivarian process forces us to revisit our assumptions about social movements and the state. We can’t just think of poor people as always necessarily up against state power and the state as always necessarily an enemy of the people. We need to be much more careful and pay much more attention to place and time.

EM

I think the most important thing to recognize is that people actually want a left-wing alternative. The most successful Chávez years were when he was most radical. I had some comrades who were there at the World Social Forum in 2005 and, apparently, when Chávez said the word “socialism” there was a five-minute round of applause. He couldn’t keep speaking! To me, that shows what people are actually looking for — not some mediocre half-left, but a real, fighting left-wing vision.

GW

Another lesson is something [Álvaro] García Linera, the vice president of Bolivia, has mentioned a number of times, and I think he means to implicitly criticize Venezuela — you can’t neglect the economy.

Sure, the goal domestically is to try to achieve a socialist economy and so on, but the fact is that we’re still living in a capitalist world market. You can’t completely close your eyes to the reality in which your country finds itself. Unfortunately, that seems to be what some powerful people within Chavismo chose to do, and I think that has led to the economic problems Venezuela is currently facing.

EM

I think adopting a critical analysis of Chavismo is important. That critical analysis can help us remain skeptical of the push from some corners of the Left to constantly redefine what socialism can look like in this supposedly “new” period.

It’s true — the Left has been completely demoralized over the past forty years. Neoliberalism has smashed unions, it has smashed mass working-class parties. But now people, even some socialists, mistake the complete demoralization of the Left for the working class’s inability to be on the offensive and demand things. So they turn toward state-led solutions.

The Chávez experience tells us to stop looking for shortcuts, because they are obviously just setting us back and allowing the Right to gain traction in its old, familiar ways — through populism and nationalism and all those things. We need to recover the essence of socialism by thinking about how we can actually get there.