Venezuela: Populist Nationalism vs. Proletarian Revolution
Workers Vanguard No. 860 | International Communist League
9 December 2005 | U.S. imperialism continues to pose a clear and present danger to the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Since being elected president in 1998, Chávez has survived a short-lived coup (in 2002), a months-long effort by a section of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie to shut down oil production, and a well-financed recall referendum, all backed by Washington. And if it were not bogged down in Iraq, the Bush gang might well have organized further provocations.
The very things that have made Chávez a thorn in the side of the arrogant U.S. rulers have made him an idol for masses of impoverished barrio residents in Venezuela and for large numbers of young leftists around the world. Chávez has called Bush an imbecile (pendejo) and ostentatiously embraces Washington’s chief nemesis in the Western Hemisphere, Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Chávez has condemned the U.S. occupation of Iraq and denounced the “neoliberal” economic policies promoted by the U.S. in Latin America and elsewhere. He has launched social programs benefiting the rural and urban poor in Venezuela and embarrassed the Bush administration by offering to provide relief for the dispossessed people of New Orleans. Most recently, through its CITGO affiliate, Venezuela has begun supplying the poor of the Bronx and parts of Massachusetts with cheap gas and oil for heat this winter.
This last January, when Chávez, speaking under the auspices of the imperialist-funded World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, proclaimed that capitalism must be “transcended” through socialism, his largely leftist audience burst into delighted soccer-style chants of “Olé, Olé, Olé, Chávez, Chávez.” But Chávez is no socialist. A former army colonel now head of the capitalist state, he is an enemy of the struggle for socialism—i.e., the fight for workers revolution to expropriate the bourgeoisie. In fact, Chávez is very much in the mold of a string of bourgeois military officers who have come to power on the basis of nationalist populism, from Col. Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s to Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt in the 1950s. In the 1950s and ’60s, as Soviet-backed nationalist movements swept the semicolonial world, virtually every Third World capitalist demagogue claimed to be a “socialist” or “Marxist-Leninist” of some description. Nasser promulgated “Arab socialism,” seized the Suez Canal from the French and British imperialists in 1956 and instituted a series of nationalizations. He nevertheless presided over the exploitation of the Egyptian toilers on behalf of imperialism—breaking strikes, subordinating the unions to the capitalist state, arresting and torturing Communists.
In the face of another U.S.-backed coup, we, as Marxist internationalist opponents of U.S. imperialism, would again call on the working class to mobilize in military defense of the Chávez government (see “CIA Targets Chávez,” WV No. 787, 20 September 2002). At the same time, we politically oppose the bourgeois-nationalist Chávez regime. In regard to the 2004 recall referendum organized by the regime’s right-wing opponents, we argued for abstention rather than a no vote, which would have been an expression of confidence in Chávez. As we wrote in “U.S. Imperialism’s Referendum Ploy Fails—Populist Capitalist Ruler Chávez Prevails” (WV No. 831, 3 September 2004): “The immediate perspective that is urgently posed is not only to oppose U.S. imperialist incursions into Venezuela and elsewhere, but to fight to shatter the support of the workers movement to either Chávez or the opposition, and to forge a revolutionary internationalist workers party to lead the working class to power.”
In contrast, the vast majority of self-described socialists and revolutionaries act as the “leftist” marketing department of Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution.” Foremost among these is Ted Grant’s British-based International Marxist Tendency (IMT), now led by Alan Woods, author of a paean titled The Venezuelan Revolution—A Marxist Perspective (2005). While other opportunists offer the occasional criticism of Chávez, Woods and his outfit actually boast of being “Trotskyist” advisers to the left-talking caudillo. In foisting Chávez off as a champion of the poor and oppressed, the IMT et al. help set workers up for slaughter. Tying the working class and its organizations to any bourgeois ruler only serves to impede independent working-class struggle. In opposition to groups like the IMT, Marxists seek to prepare the Venezuelan working class to effectively combat the murderous forces of bourgeois reaction, whether led by Chávez or his bourgeois opponents.
Chávez and Imperialism
Examining the arguments used by fake Marxists like the IMT to justify their support to the “Bolivarian Revolution” will help clarify the difference between populist nationalism and authentic proletarian Marxism. In a 1 March article on their Web site (www.marxist.com) titled “President Chavez Reaffirms Opposition to Capitalism,” IMT spokesman Jorge Martin asserts that when he came to power in 1998, “Chavez did not start from a socialist standpoint. He was committed to solving the problems of inequality, poverty, and misery of millions of Venezuelans. But he initially thought that could be done within the limits of the capitalist system.” Martin continues:
“Since President Chavez was seriously committed to solving these problems, the oligarchy, en masse, went over to the side of armed insurrection against the democratically elected government....
“It has been this rich experience of the revolutionary movement, faced with the constant provocations of the ruling class, that has pushed Chavez and many in the Bolivarian revolutionary movement to draw the conclusion that ‘Within the framework of capitalism it is impossible to solve the challenges of fighting against poverty, misery, exploitation, inequality’....
“This dynamic of action and reaction of the Venezuelan revolution reminds us in a very powerful way of the first years of the Cuban revolution. In a process of attack and counter-attack, the leadership of the Cuban revolution, which did not start with the intention of overthrowing capitalism, was forced, in order to solve the most pressing needs of the masses, to overthrow capitalism.”
Aside from the point that Chávez did not (and does not) “start from a socialist standpoint,” every statement in this passage is false or misleading. We will address later in this article the notion that “the leadership of the Cuban revolution” should be a model for Latin American revolutionaries. For now it is enough to show how the IMT’s comparison of Castro’s Cuba with Chávez’s Venezuela twists the facts into a pretzel. When Castro’s rebel army marched into Havana on 1 January 1959, the bourgeois army and the rest of the capitalist state apparatus that had propped up the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship collapsed in disarray. By the time Castro declared Cuba “socialist” in 1961, the Cuban bourgeoisie and the U.S. imperialists and their CIA and Mafia henchmen had all fled and every bit of capitalist property down to the last ice cream vendor had been expropriated. What was created in Cuba was a bureaucratically deformed workers state. In contrast, Chávez came to power and rules at the head of the capitalist state, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie is alive and kicking, and the imperialists continue to carry on a thriving business with Venezuela, White House threats and provocations notwithstanding.
Chávez’s principal concern upon coming to power was to “solve the problem” of the country’s faltering oil profits, the lifeblood of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. He moved immediately to discipline the oil workers union and to otherwise increase the efficiency of the state-owned oil industry, while pressing the OPEC oil cartel to jack up prices. It was for such efforts, and to enforce political stability, that Chávez was initially supported by much of the ruling class. This included not least his former comrades in the military high command, who were instrumental in restoring him to power after the 2002 coup. As oil prices climbed, Chávez did siphon off some of the enormous profits to finance a series of social measures: tripling the budget for education, setting up free health clinics and free food distribution programs for the poor, etc. But the aim of such measures is not to effect, but rather to deflect, a social revolution—by binding the dispossessed masses more firmly to the Venezuelan state.
However much the lily-white Venezuelan oligarchy may detest this upstart junior officer who boasts of his zambo (mixed African and indigenous) heritage, Chávez serves the class interests of the Caracas bourgeoisie—and, through that class, world imperialism. While speaking of “restlessness in the boardrooms” over the regime’s populist policies, a New York Times (3 November) article headlined “Chávez Restyles Venezuela With ‘21st-Century Socialism’” reported soberly: “So far, no noticeable exodus of foreign companies operating in Venezuela has occurred. Banks and oil companies are making record profits thanks to oil prices that have left the country, the world’s fifth-largest exporter, awash in petrodollars.”
In his Porto Alegre speech, Chávez was quick to assure the Venezuelan bourgeoisie and its imperialist overlords that his is not “the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union”—i.e., a planned, collectivized economy based on the overthrow of capitalist rule—which he denounced as “state capitalism” and a “perversion.” He made it very clear that his friendship with Cuba’s leader did not extend to its collectivized economy, saying, “Cuba has its own profile and Venezuela has its own.” He lauded and identified with Brazil’s Lula, the one-time populist who enforces imperialist-dictated austerity measures. In short, as Chávez declared on his Alo Presidente TV show on May 22, his vision of “21st- century socialism” is “not in contradiction with private companies, it is not in contradiction with private property.”
Indeed. And so long as capitalist private property prevails, the masses will remain subject to exploitation and oppression, and economic development will be subordinated to the dictates of the world capitalist market, particularly the imperialist oil monopolies. There can be no permanent amelioration of the plight of the urban and rural poor without the smashing of the capitalist state and the overthrow of the capitalist social order, leading through a series of proletarian revolutions internationally to a global classless order in which all forms of exploitation and oppression have been eliminated.
Trotsky and Permanent Revolution
This understanding animated the October Revolution of 1917. Led by the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, the workers of Russia—organized around their own class interests and through democratically elected workers councils (soviets)—swept away the capitalist state and replaced it with a workers state. The Bolshevik-led workers stood at the head of all the oppressed, not least the vast army of poor and landless peasants, and saw their revolution as the opening shot of a necessarily international struggle of labor against the rule of capital.
This is a far cry from what happened in the Cuban Revolution, where Castro’s July 26 Movement consisted of peasant guerrillas and declassed petty-bourgeois intellectuals who had become estranged from the bourgeoisie and were independent of the proletariat. Under ordinary conditions, the Castroite rebels would have followed in the footsteps of countless similar movements in Latin America, wielding radical-democratic rhetoric to reassert bourgeois control. It was only as a result of exceptional circumstances—the absence of the working class as a contender for power in its own right, hostile imperialist encirclement and the flight of the national bourgeoisie, and a lifeline thrown by the Soviet Union—that Castro’s petty-bourgeois government was able to smash capitalist property relations.
The existence of the Soviet degenerated workers state was crucial in this, providing economic assistance and a military shield that helped stay the hand of the imperialist beast just 90 miles away. Unlike the Soviet Union, where the original revolutionary and internationalist program of October was trampled underfoot by a conservative, nationalist bureaucracy that usurped political control in 1923-24, in Cuba the workers state was bureaucratically deformed from its inception.
In overthrowing capitalist rule, the Cuban Revolution stopped the plunder of the island by the imperialists and the local bourgeoisie. As with the Soviet degenerated workers state when it existed, we call for the unconditional military defense of Cuba and the other remaining deformed workers states—China, North Korea and Vietnam—against internal counterrevolution and imperialist attack. It is the Stalinist Castroite bureaucracy that undermines the defense of Cuba, not least by cozying up to and providing a “revolutionary” cover for all kinds of anti-working-class capitalist regimes. As we state in the International Communist League “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 54, Spring 1998):
“Under the most favorable historic circumstances conceivable, the petty-bourgeois peasantry was only capable of creating a bureaucratically deformed workers state, that is, a state of the same order as that issuing out of the political counterrevolution of Stalin in the Soviet Union, an anti-working-class regime which blocked the possibilities to extend social revolution into Latin America and North America, and suppressed Cuba’s further development in the direction of socialism. To place the working class in political power and open the road to socialist development requires a supplemental political revolution led by a Trotskyist party. With the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state and consequently no readily available lifeline against imperialist encirclement, the narrow historical opening in which petty-bourgeois forces were able to overturn local capitalist rule has been closed, underscoring the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution.”
Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, confirmed by the Russian Revolution, holds that in those countries where capitalism emerged belatedly, the tasks historically associated with the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries can only be carried out under the class rule of the proletariat. No matter how radical-sounding their political representatives, the bourgeoisies in the backward countries are too weak, too fearful of the rising proletariat and too dependent on the imperialist order to resolve the problems of political democracy, agrarian revolution and independent national development.
In its own way, it is rather appropriate that the capitalist demagogue Chávez idolizes Simón Bolívar, a man described by Karl Marx in a February 1858 letter to Friedrich Engels as “the most dastardly, most miserable and meanest of blackguards.” As Marx makes clear in a contribution on Bolívar written for The New American Cyclopaedia of 1858, the founding father of Latin American nationalism embodied many of the attributes of the late-emerging semicolonial bourgeoisie of South America. He was venal, corrupt, cowardly and imperious. He repeatedly deserted his troops under fire, stabbed his comrades in the back and relied on the forces of British imperialism for his victories. Following his first triumph in 1813, he allowed himself to be publicly honored, drawn in a carriage by 12 young ladies from the first families of Caracas, and proclaimed himself “dictator and liberator of the western provinces of Venezuela.”
The Bolivarian “Marxists” of the IMT turn permanent revolution on its head, arguing that if a bourgeois formation is really committed to fighting for democracy, it can somehow overcome its historic limitations and achieve not only democracy but even socialism. Thus IMT spokesman Jorge Martin writes, “The central idea of the theory of Permanent Revolution is that in colonial and ex-colonial countries the struggle for the bourgeois democratic tasks, if it is pursued to the end, must lead (in an uninterrupted or permanent manner) to the socialist revolution.” The programmatic essence of permanent revolution is the struggle for the class independence of the proletariat from all wings of the semicolonial bourgeoisie—no matter how “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” their proclamations. That struggle can be realized only through forging a revolutionary, internationalist workers party in opposition to all variants of bourgeois nationalism.
Reform vs. Revolution
The task of Marxists is to rip the “socialist” mask off the Chávez regime, to warn that he represents the class enemy. If the IMT’s opportunist competitors do not simply fawn over Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution,” they nevertheless join in depicting the left-talking caudillo as a potential, albeit partial and unreliable, ally of the working class. Thus Peter Taaffe’s British-based Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) lauds Chávez for launching a “debate on the development of socialism” that is “crucial for the further development of the Venezuelan revolution” but complains that, “unfortunately,” Chávez “has no perspective of spreading a socialist revolution to other [!] countries of Latin America” (“Venezuela: Socialism Back on the Agenda,” 6 October).
Then there is the League for the Fifth International (L5I) centered on the British Workers Power group, which titles a chapter in its Anti-Capitalism: A Rough Guide to the Anti-Capitalist Movement (2005) “Hugo Chávez: A New Leader for the Anticapitalist Movement?” Polemicizing against admirers of the Mexican Zapatistas who believe that it is possible to effect social change without taking power, the L5I writes:
“Chávez at least shows that genuine reforms cannot come by pleading, which have brought the precious few results for the Mexican peasants, but rather come from seeking to take hold of power. Chávez’s faults lie in his unwillingness to destroy all those elements of the Venezuelan state—the judiciary, and police above all—which hamper and frustrate progress.”
Chávez will not destroy the agencies of repression that are at the core of the bourgeois state—the judiciary, the police, the prison system and, “above all,” the army—because he administers the bourgeois state. Sweeping away the dictatorship of capital in Venezuela means sweeping away the bourgeois regime through proletarian revolution, not lecturing the capitalist strongman as though he were a wayward apprentice. Indeed, as his left camp followers complain, Chávez has not even purged many individual recalcitrants from his military and police command, as happens after almost every Latin American coup.
Under its patina of pseudo-Leninist rhetoric, the L5I promotes the essence of social-democratic reformism—the notion that the bourgeois state need not be smashed on the anvil of proletarian revolution but can be reformed into serving as an instrument of social transformation. In Britain, Workers Power’s home terrain, this has historically taken the form of slavish loyalty to the pro-capitalist, parliamentarist Labour Party (in which the IMT’s British group remains deeply buried). In Venezuela, it means whitewashing the fact that populist strongman Chávez is the class enemy of the proletarian struggle for socialism.
Populism, Neoliberalism—Two Sides of a Coin
The popularity of Chávez and his “Bolivarian Revolution” among idealistic young leftists—and wizened opportunists—must be understood against the backdrop of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union. Among radical youth, nurtured by more than a decade of “death of communism” propaganda from the “left” and the right, the October Revolution is widely perceived to have been a “failed experiment.” They reject as well the Marxist understanding that the working class is the unique agency for social revolution against the capitalist order. Moreover, capitalism has, by and large, been equated with that particular set of economic policies known as “neoliberalism”—widespread privatization of public facilities, destruction of social welfare programs, untrammeled imperialist aggrandizement.
The recent history of Venezuela amply demonstrates that neoliberalism and populism are nothing but two faces of the same coin, sometimes carried out by the same bourgeois regime in different periods. Carlos Andrés Pérez of Democratic Action (AD), for example, is remembered as the president who nationalized oil and mining in the mid 1970s and also as the president who introduced IMF shock treatment. AD spouted social-democratic rhetoric and controlled the corporatist CTV trade-union federation. Buoyed by a surge in oil revenues in the 1970s, the bourgeoisie amassed enormous wealth. At the same time, the AD and the bourgeois, pro-Catholic COPEI party, which was at different times the AD’s rival and its partner, presided over the highest wages for workers anywhere in Latin America, as well as extensive price controls and subsidies for food, transportation, education, health care and other necessities.
But in the 1980s, the oil boom turned to bust and the huge imperialist debt bomb exploded, leading to a plunge in living standards for working people, massive cuts in social services and other stringent austerity measures. The portion of the population living below the poverty line nearly doubled, from 36 to 66 percent, between 1984 and 1995. As industry and agriculture declined, large numbers of formerly unionized workers and the rural dispossessed were driven into the low-wage “informal economy,” trying to eke out an existence as street vendors, servants, temporary workers, etc. The rate of trade-union membership dropped from 26.4 percent in 1988 to 13.5 percent in 1995, leaving the CTV as the preserve of a relatively privileged layer of oil and other public-sector workers.
In 1989, Pérez introduced his paquetazo, the “big package” of austerity measures. This provoked mass protests, the Caracazo, which were brutally suppressed. In an essay in Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era (ed. Steve Ellner and Daniel Hellinger ), Kenneth Roberts writes:
“The combination of social polarization and political detachment proved to be highly combustible after 1989, as Venezuelans turned on the political establishment and threw their support to a series of independent leaders and protest parties. By the end of the 1990s, widespread disillusionment produced a ground swell of support for the consummate political outsider: a former paratrooper commander who captured the popular imagination by leading a failed coup attempt against a discredited democratic regime.”
These were classic conditions for the emergence of a populist strongman like Chávez.
Another example of a Latin American populist nationalist was Mexico’s Lázaro Cárdenas, who nationalized foreign oil companies and made significant land distributions to the peasantry in the 1930s. He also broke strikes and subordinated the working class through the corporatist CTM labor federation. In a May 1939 article titled “Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management,” Trotsky noted:
“In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom toward the foreign capitalists.”
Bonapartism in Venezuela
In Venezuela, AD founder Rómulo Betancourt, who talked of socialism, governed in league with the military in the 1940s and purged the unions of Communists, turning the CTV into a tame corporatist labor adjunct of AD. Reading from the same script, Chávez advanced social reforms aimed at consolidating a base of support among the plebeian poor. His aim was to use this base as a battering ram not only against his enemies in the oligarchy but particularly against the CTV labor federation, whose top leadership was not only part of AD but also tied to the CIA through the AFL-CIO labor bureaucracy in the U.S.
Under the battle cry of bringing “democracy” to the CTV, Chávez sought to bring the unions to heel. He assumed office in 1998 declaring that the CTV “must be demolished” and tried, unsuccessfully, to ram through a union-busting referendum two years later. For their part, the notoriously pro-imperialist CTV union tops joined with the oil bosses and other anti-Chávez sectors of the bourgeoisie and military in the botched 2002 coup and the lengthy strike/lockout in the oil industry that began later that year.
In April 2003, the Bolivarian Workers Force (FBT) in the CTV and other chavista union bureaucrats set up a new union federation under the umbrella of the government. The Unión Nacional de Trabajadores (UNT—National Union of Workers) garnered fully 76.5 percent of labor agreements signed in 2003-04, according to Chávez’s Ministry of Labor, while the CTV captured a bare 20 percent. The UNT has now won the favor of the UN’s International Labor Organization and the pro-imperialist Trades Union Congress tops in Britain. It has also been enthusiastically touted by the fake left internationally, including those groups that offer some tepid criticism of Chávez himself. In particular, such groups hail the occasional plant occupations and the UNT’s call for “cogestión” (misrepresented as “workers control”) as evidence that the “Bolivarian Revolution” is not simply a product of government policy but is driven by working-class struggle at the base of Venezuelan society.
Socialist Worker (5 August), newspaper of the U.S. International Socialist Organization (ISO), reported rhapsodically that UNT leaders had called for the “formation of a mass workers party that can fight for the socialist revolution in Venezuela.” Striking a slightly more critical pose, the Internationalist Group (IG) writes in the Internationalist (September-October 2005): “The UNT has adopted socialist language, and even criticizes government plans for ‘co-management,’ calling for ‘workers control.’ However, none of the main sectors of the UNT has adopted a revolutionary program aiming at preparing the socialist revolution. Rather they seek to pressure the Chávez government to the left.” Particularly coming from the IG, this is a rather mild way of describing a union federation that was established under the wing of the Chávez government.
You would not know it from reading its latest article, but the IG was singing a different tune in a November 2000 article titled “Against Chávez, the Stock Market and the IMF—Venezuela: Mobilize Workers Power to Defeat the Anti-Union Referendum!” That article, which appeared in Spanish on its Web site, depicted the Venezuelan populist as simply a stooge of the Caracas stock exchange and the imperialists and played down the dangers of U.S. imperialist intervention, as well as the CTV’s organic ties to the bourgeois AD and its historic connections to the CIA’s “labor” fronts in Latin America.
What particularly caught our eye at the time was that the IG did not describe the CTV as corporatist, an omission all the more remarkable given its use of that label as a justification for not defending the Mexican CTM labor federation against government attack. We observed: “Given its history of lining up behind ‘anti-imperialist’ nationalists from Mexico to Puerto Rico and beyond, one could have expected the IG to cozy up to the nationalist-populist Chávez” (“IG on Venezuela: Opportunism Makes Strange Bedfellows,” WV No. 787, 20 September 2002). Having finally sniffed which way the wind is blowing, the IG is now racing to place itself on the left flank of the Bolivarian Revolution fan club. The IG now consigns the CTV to the dustbin.
The UNT leaders certainly talk a more radical line than the CIA-connected CTV tops, but they are no less tied to the capitalist government. In September, the UNT and FBT organized a “political education workshop” in Caracas “with the collaboration of the Ministry of Labour,” according to a report by Jorge Martin (www.handsoffvenezuela.org, 26 September). A resolution passed there talked of “the historical struggle for the emancipation of the working class,” “socialism as the hope of the oppressed classes of the world” and the need to expropriate the means of production. Prefacing all of this fiery rhetoric was an abject promise to “ratify the leading role of our president Hugo Chavez Frias in this democratic and participatory revolution.” All talk of socialist revolution and a mass workers party is simply hot air in the absence of a struggle for the complete and unconditional independence of the proletariat from the capitalist state and its political parties.
The “Cogestión” Scam
In trumpeting the scam of “cogestión” (co-management), which is promoted by Chávez and the UNT as “workers control,” the reformist left helps strengthen the stranglehold of the capitalist state over the Venezuelan labor movement. In the U.S., the Workers World Party exults that “Workers Are Taking Control in Venezuela”: “Everywhere in Venezuela today workers are forging ahead with new formations of workers’ organization. They are taking over factories here, experimenting with co-management there. Workers are challenging the old class relationships and coming to a collective realization of their historic role in the struggle for socialism” (Workers World, 5 May).
In Marxist terms, workers control is not an institution, nor is it a demand to be raised for implementation by the bourgeoisie. It is dual power at the point of production in a revolutionary crisis—i.e., the workers have the power to veto management actions they oppose. It can only end in the workers seizing state power through a socialist revolution or in the capitalists reasserting their power through a counterrevolution. What is being passed off as “workers control” by the cynical pro-Chávez “left” is in fact a scheme to institutionalize class collaboration and more tightly bind the workers organizations to the capitalists and their state. There is nothing new in this. In Trotsky’s unfinished 1940 article “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay,” he wrote:
“The management of railways, oil fields, etc., through labor organizations has nothing in common with workers control over industry, for in the essence of the matter the management is effected through the labor bureaucracy which is independent of the workers but, in return, completely dependent on the bourgeois state.”
In Venezuela today, the main example of “workers control” is the paper supplies factory Venepal (now Invepal). Formerly employing 1,600 workers, by the time this bankrupt company was nationalized in January, only 350 workers remained. The company, in dire straits since 1997, had simply not been able to restart production after supporting the 2002 lockout against Chávez. The workers finally turned to Chávez, who went on to nationalize the company. However, the company was to be directly run initially by the state, and only at a later stage would it be converted to a co-management structure between workers and the state under the direct supervision of Labor Minister María Cristina Iglesias. Six months after the IMT originally cried “socialism!” over the Venepal nationalization, the Grantites were forced to acknowledge in an Internet article (18 July) that “the leaders of the union have taken the step of disbanding the union and are hoping to buy off the state’s stake in the company so that they can be the sole owners and keep any profits from production” (Jorge Martin, “Chavez Announces Expropriation of Closed Factories”).
Another example of “co-management” is the ALCASA aluminum mill in Ciudad Guayana, whose board now includes two directors elected by the workers and four appointed by the state, according to a report in the Militant (15 August), newspaper of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. One local leader of the Sintralcasa union said that he was not for wholesale nationalization, explaining: “We depend a lot on the U.S. economy, so we’re not for bringing down the empire.” Another said, “Now that we have co-management, the union no longer speaks only of raising wages” and continued, “we have to increase production and lower costs.”
The ISO’s Socialist Worker assures its readers that “cogestion has nothing in common with socialdemocratic co-management.” In fact, that is essentially what it is, a variant of what is known in Germany as Mitbestimmung (co-determination), implemented through plant councils (Betriebsräte) that by law, if not always in practice, include representatives of management. Perhaps even more pertinent to the situation in Venezuela is the example of “autogestion” (self-management) in post-colonial Algeria in the early 1960s. The Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens (UGTA) organized independent workers’ self-management committees in the factories and on the agricultural estates abandoned by the departing French colonialists. Fearful of a challenge to its rule, the very left-talking bourgeois-nationalist FLN (National Liberation Front) regime of Ahmed Ben Bella pushed through the institutionalization of self-management and ever greater state regimentation of the UGTA. Once the power of the working class had been shackled, the “socialist” Ben Bella was ousted through a palace coup.
A central role in the betrayal of the Algerian workers was played by Michel Pablo, who served as an adviser to the capitalist FLN government. Pablo’s pamphlet World in Revolution boasted that he “helped codify and institutionalize self-management in Algeria, and draft the Algerian Reform Law and economic and social policy in the country between 1962 and 1965” (see “They Never Learn,” WV No. 86, 21 November 1975). Some years earlier, as a central leader of the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), Pablo authored the liquidationist program that was responsible for the destruction of the FI. Today, Alan Woods’ IMT, whose political lineage goes right back to Pablo, aspires to play Pablo’s role in Venezuela.
History will reserve a harsh verdict for those “leftists” who promote one or another left-talking capitalist caudillo. The way forward for the downtrodden throughout the Americas does not lie through painting nationalist strongmen as revolutionaries and populist forays as revolutions. It lies instead in constructing national sections of a reforged Fourth International in the spirit of uncompromising revolutionary hostility to any and all kinds of capitalist rule. South of the Rio Bravo, such parties will have to be built in political struggle against widespread illusions in populism and nationalism. In the United States, the belly of the imperialist beast, a revolutionary workers party will be built in the struggle to break the proletariat from the Democratic and Republican parties of capital and to replace the pro-imperialist AFL-CIO tops with a class-struggle leadership.
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