How SWP discredits the Venezuelan revolution / FRFI 190 Apr / May 2006

FRFI 190 April / May 2006

Review feature: How SWP discredits the Venezuelan revolution

• Venezuela and Revolution in the 21st Century, a Socialist Worker pamphlet by Joseph Choonara. Febuary 2006 pp30

‘To the metaphysician...a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in rigid antithesis one to the other.’
Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring

And so it is with this pamphlet. The old Venezuelan state ‘has not yet been smashed’ (p25), the role of the market and free enterprise has not been abolished, so the revolution, in fact, does not exist. In 30 pages we see nothing but a ridiculous caricature of revolutionary ideas, an utter failure to grasp the political significance of the new Venezuelan constitution, ignorance of the new administration, a complete neglect of the revolutionary internationalism shown by Cuba, a complete failure to understand the significance of ‘Bolivarianism’ in Latin America, a denial of imperialism, a patronising attitude to the working class in Venezuela and a social-liberal sympathy for the labour aristocracy, all tied to attacks on President Chavez, his party and allies.

SWP leader Chris Harman recently visited Venezuela, carrying his metaphysical method of judging revolutions, and now Joseph Choonara asks the question ‘Is Venezuela heading for revolution?’ His circular answer is that a ‘revolutionary process has been driven forward by growing class conflict’, and he concludes profoundly that it ‘is unfinished’ (p6).

In Choonara’s view there is not presently a situation of dual power in Venezuela. The majority and its government are not fighting to transform the economic and political life of the country against imperialism. The pamphlet concludes that ‘the power and centralisation of a well-organised ruling class and state machine’ exists in Venezuela, obstructing real revolution. It states that a new revolutionary party must be formed, ‘armed with the tools and arguments to convince others around them’ which ‘will be crucial to turning the dreams of socialism...into reality’ (p29-30). In brief, President Chavez, his political party the MVR – which on 4 December gained an absolute majority in Congress – and its allies, are not fit for the job. They are just dreamers. When Choonara quotes Chavez on the reinvention of socialism or the refusal of the Venezuelan people to surrender to counter-revolution (p5 and 15), he can thus only be doing so to show he is such a dreamer. Choonara concludes that: ‘The parties linked to Chavez cannot be the vehicle for the deepening of the revolution’ (p29). In fact this SWP pamphlet aims, as we have said previously of Chris Harman’s public statements, to ‘throw doubt over whether a “revolution” [is] taking place in Venezuela, thereby saving the [reader] any concern with supporting it’ (FRFI 188 December 2005).

Whose ‘ambiguity’?
In the section ‘Steps still to come’, Choonara asserts that at the heart of the Bolivarian process there is ‘an ambiguity’ over ‘who makes the revolution’. He shamelessly asserts that: ‘Chavez’s politics are based on the belief that he and others with similar objectives can take power, either through a coup, as he attempted to do in 1992, or through elections, as he did in 1998, and hand out reforms from above’ (p22-23), thus, ‘The Bolivarian circles set up by Chavez are essentially top-down bodies implementing decisions handed down from above’ (p29). He writes ‘Obviously, it would be stupid to oppose such reforms, especially as many of them are the results of demands made on the government from below’ (p23). Well, Mr Choonara, are they ‘handed down’ or aren’t they? He goes on: ‘Reforms handed down from above can be taken away again.’ Why would the demands from below cease? The only ‘ambiguity’ here is Choonara’s metaphysical view of class struggle as a sort of ‘pass the parcel’ – ‘Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another’. His is the ambiguity, as he constantly calls the whole process a revolution but insists that only easily reversible ‘reforms’ have taken place!

The key problem for Choonara is that there are ‘contradictions’. For him these are entirely subjective and take the form of attempts by Chavez ‘to satisfy the demands of different and opposed classes in Venezuelan society’(p15). What Choonara misses is that the struggle in Venezuela is first and foremost a struggle against imperialism, a revolutionary national struggle. This can only succeed with the extension of political democracy whilst transforming it with a new economic democracy, but without allowing its enemies to wreck production. For expressing precisely this concern Choonara attacks Marta Harnecker ‘a left wing activist close to Chavez’ (p23). Yet this is the significance of the 1999 constitution – the basis for all the subsequent progressive legislation – which is the most democratic in Latin America, and which the SWP pamphlet dismisses as capturing ‘the contradictions of the period’. As if an honest constitution could do otherwise! He warns that ‘the dangers of relying on the constitution are clear from the example of Chile in 1973’ (p25), yet conceals from the reader that Chavez is arming the workers and that at present 500,000 Venezuelans are training voluntarily as members of the new territorial guard. Two million have signed up for a people’s army, to dissuade the US from further acts of aggression.

Choonara cannot understand the national question historically. He completely ignores imperialism and speaks only of ‘neo-liberal policies’ from which – in the case of Kirchner’s Argentina – ‘capitalist normality’ can be restored (p8)! ‘Anti-capitalism’ and ‘class struggle’ in Venezuela are presented entirely abstractly, thus avoiding the tasks of challenging US and European imperialism in Latin America. Worse, Choonara sneakily says that ‘condemning “Yankee imperialism” has always been a useful way to distract from continued inequality at home...the assertiveness also reflects the interests of groups of (Latin American) capitalists’ (p28), so throwing suspicion upon anti-imperialists whilst separating inequality at home from imperialism! He then attacks Chavez again. ‘A central plank of Chavez’s foreign policy has been greater integration of different Latin American oil and gas companies ... But these companies...[seek] to plunder Bolivia’s oil and gas resources’ (p28). When even the Financial Times can point to the fact that energy accords between Morales and Chavez ‘are expected to underpin forthcoming radical reforms to Bolivia’s economy and energy sector’, Choonara’s dirty game is well exposed.

Not surprisingly Bolivarianism is ignored. Simon Bolivar is by-passed simply as an anti- colonial leader (p5), not one who fought to unite Latin America and who warned of the US’s ‘destiny’ ‘to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty’. Choonara will not see that oppressed nations must unite against imperialism if they are to avoid permanent underdevelopment. He does not want to discuss the issue of imperialism. Thus the land question is simply of ‘huge symbolic significance’(p17), when in fact Venezuela is the only country in Latin America to depend on food imports, so that farming and land ownership are fundamental to the national independence of the Bolivarian Republic.

Choonara’s disdain for the constitution and elections echoes Mike Gonzalez who (Socialist Worker, 7 August 2004) said of the Venezuelan recall referendum of 15 August 2004, ‘If our [sic] side respects bourgeois democracy, the bourgeoisie will overturn it in defence of its own interests. The shape of the future will not be the result of this or any other referendum’. In fact that referendum campaign was vital in the development of the revolutionary organisation of the working class and as Choonara admits, the result ‘reflected the overwhelming support Chavez had gained’ (p21). Still Choonara reiterates Gonzalez’s caricature of the MVR’s strategy as naïve, because ‘since his election Chavez has adhered strictly to constitutional legality, the old ruling class will show no such restraint, as they demonstrated in 2002’ (p24). Not a word about the intense and unceasing efforts of Chavez as a responsible leader, his promotion by every means to raise the self-confidence, knowledge and revolutionary activism of the masses, a confidence that has been repaid in a unity against reaction. In contrast Choonara relegates half the country’s labour force – ‘informal workers’ – to an early stage in the revolution, which only later gives way to ‘serious involvement by groups of organised workers’ (p19). Some of these have ‘clashed’ with the government, ‘raising demands over pay and conditions’. Rather than see the political dangers of economism here, or seriously discuss the moral problem posed for the government by the conditions of other far poorer workers, Choonara declares that ‘the lifestyle available to supposedly “privileged” organised workers is a world apart from that enjoyed by the real Venezuelan elite who exploit their labour’(p27). Nothing could more clearly express the mentality of the petty bourgeois who understand nothing about equality or solidarity amongst the workers themselves or the problems of building a socialist economy.

Last year Richard Gott wrote a feature, ‘Hugo Chavez and Venezuela’s slow revolution’ in Socialist Worker (12 February 2005). Gott shows a solid understanding of the constantly evolving political and economic relationships in Venezuela, and has great respect for President Chavez. ‘He is almost like a successor to Fidel Castro, who is immensely popular in Latin America’. Yet Choonara is silent on the close relation between the two states, the exchanges of oil for massive health and literacy programmes, and of the first ‘South-South’ agricultural agreements. Choonara cannot conceal the well-known fact that ‘Cuban doctors employed to provide basic healthcare under Mission Barrio Adentro have had a dramatic impact on health, treating 18 million people according to official figures’ (p20).

In this muddied pamphlet, which diverts our energies from the real task of fighting imperialism, we find barren negation. Choonara is not part of the revolution in Venezuela, his opinion is introduced from without, and ‘as nothing can result from it, the negator must be at loggerheads with the world, sullenly finding fault with everything that exists or ever happened, with the whole historical development.’ (Engels’ Preparatory Materials for Anti-Duhring Part 1)

Alvaro Michaels