[Marxism] Is the Chavez government a "Bonapartist regime"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Mar 14 19:05:11 MST 2004

The March 22 Militant declares in a lead article on Venezuela: hávez is
the head of a Bonapartist regime—a government whose central figure
presents himself as a 'strong man' standing above the traditional
political institutions and balancing class interests between the
country’s impoverished majority and the wealthy classes. 

"For example, the government has used the National Guard for popular
programs such as the distribution of food in workers districts at prices
half of those in the regular markets. At the same time, it has also used
the same troops on occasion to evict peasants from land they have taken
over in disputes with capitalist landlords. 

"Chávez’s party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), is a multi-class
formation. While he often appeals to working people and small
businessmen to rally behind his government’s policies, he also draws
support from some middle-class layers and a minority section of the
capitalist class. 

"The bourgeois nationalist government has left the country’s capitalist
social relations virtually intact. The capitalist class in Venezuela,
one of Latin America’s most industrialized and wealthiest countries,
continues to hold state power, and is using its economic power to try to
cripple the government." 

I think this characterization of Bonapartism has fundamental weaknesses.
It gives too much weight to alleged "personal characteristics" such as
"presenting himself as a 'strong man'" (what politician deliberately
presents himself as a weak man), and too much on "standing above the
traditional political institutions" (what politician these days doesn't
inveigh against the "old politics," and put the interests of the people
above "politics").  It was this kind of subjectivist approach to
defining bonapartism that led the SWP, while I was still in it in the
'90s, to present Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura as a "bonapartist."  

He presented himself as a "strong man," a professional wrestler, no
less! He's  back on Smackdown, by the way. He  was elected on an
"independent" ticket (the People's Party) and claimed to stand above the
old party politics as usual.  Hence, bonapartism!  This analysis was
also applied to Colin Powell, when he was probing running for president
as either a Republican or a Democrat.  He belonged to no party, and
presented himself as representing a universal public interest above
politics. He presented himself as "strong."  Ergo, bonapartism!  

The image of the twice-elected Chavez in the Militant  is has broad
similarities to that presented by his right-wing opponents. The
rightists  portray him as a running  a personal dictatorship which has
destroyed parliamentary institutions, suppressed the independent
judiciary, rules through a military clique, and has effectively
abolished bourgeois-democratic rights including freedom of the press.
None of this is true. 

Is the regime a product of a military takeover?  No.  Chavez's
popularity may have been fostered by the 1992 revolt and his
imprisonment but he was elected in an open bourgeois election procedure.
The army played no role in placing him in office. Has the army grown
stronger relative to the people in his regime?  The split in the army in
the face of popular resistance to the first coup attempt indicates that
this is not the case.  And subsequent splits have further weakened the
army's capacity to take a decisive stand against the people.  All in
all, the army in Venezuela is probably less capable of an antidemocratic
coup today than any other in Latin America.  I am less certain, however,
that it is anywhere near sufficient to defend the country from a US or
US-Colombian attack, but perhaps many people are already trying to sort
out this problem. 

Has the military been raised further above society in  the Chavez
regime?  How? By carrying out social service projects.  When the US
government uses the army for flood control, is that a bonapartist

Note that the Militant's portrayal of Bonapartism creates the overall
impression of Chavez as essentially ruling through the military as a
"progressive army officer."  What is the evidence for this? I don't see
much.  The Militant leaves the distinct impression that the
bourgeois-democratic regime in Venezuela has been overthrown and
replaced by something more repressive, albeit with a heavy dose of
populist "demagogy".  But this is not true.  Today, Venezuela still
qualifies clearly  as a bourgeois democracy although one facing a broad
popular upsurge of the workers and farmers led to a substantial degree
by Chavez and forces who support him.  While Chavez's opponents have
retained all their constitutional rights, the workers and peasants have
gained more democratic rights and struggle room than they had before. Is
this characteristic of bonapartism?

Nor has there been any element of emergency rule in Venezuela or the
siezing of extraordinary powers by a state machine above the law.  In
fact, the bourgeois state is less able to resist popular demands than it
was before Chavez. Bonapartism? 

The imperialist and bourgeois-party-controlled trade union movement has
been pushed aside by a new union movement arising out of a workers'
upsurge.  The new union movement has an array of political currents and
basically supports the Chavez government but is not controlled by it.
So where's the bonapartism?  

Does Chavez really present himself as a "strong man" based on both the
capitalist and workers?  Is this his "demagogy"? And does the Militant
really believe that being a "strong man" is a reactionary thing in
general.  Why? (By the way, a "strong woman" can also be a bonapartist
ruler -- Indira Gandhi in India and Sirimavo  Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka
and there are elements of this in the Sukarnoputri government in
Indonesia -- but none of these have characteristics similar to Chavez.)

Let's look at the one solid piece of evidence of a bonapartist regime
that the Militant presents:"For example, the government has used the
National Guard for popular programs such as the distribution of food in
workers districts at prices half of those in the regular markets. At the
same time, it has also used the same troops on occasion to evict
peasants from land they have taken over in disputes with capitalist

Don't we need know more about the use of "the same troops on occasion to
evict peasants from land they have taken over in disputes with
capitalist landlords." (The VERY same troops? Is the author sure? In
Venezuela, this can be a significant issue.) 

In citing this as proof that the former bourgeois-democratic regime has
been replaced by a bonapartist military-police rule under a "strong
man," the Militant clearly suggests that the order for the removal of
the peasants came from the bonapartist summit and not from any court
rulings or orders from lower elected bourgeois politicians.  What proof
can be offered of this?

How common have such incidents been?  How many peasants were killed,
beaten,  arrested, or imprisoned for these acts?  Are any still in
prison?  After all, if there was no repression of that type, then how
can the action be used to strike fear into other peasants who might do
likewise?  Were the peasant leaders jailed or the organizations
suppressed?  Did the peasants cease their fight?  Was their fight
further obstructed by the military?

Are the officers who carried out the removal of peasants still with the
military?  A lot of officers have left over the two years since the
April 2002 coup attempt.

Finally, what has been the disposition of the disputed land?  What was
the final outcome of the legal process?  Did the peasants who were
fighting for it receive the land or do the landlords still hold it under
military protection?

Without answers to at least some of these questions, I hardly think that
the instances cited are signficant as evidence, let alone proof, that an
antidemocratic Bonapartist regime exists in Venezuela.

The Militant is very clear that they oppose  the overthrow of Chavez by
the bourgeoisie and the imperialists.  They do not look forward to
snarling at a defeated Chavez tomorrow the way they do at the currently
defeated Aristide.  Fair enough.  Aristide and Chavez ARE different.
(Chavez is a revolutionary, in my opinion.)

But from that position they should examine closely their generalities
about "bonapartist regime" and "the military" and  the like, and shape
their characterization of the regime to differentiate it from bourgeois
and left anti-Chavez left forces who portray it as a bonapartist
strongman dictatorship that uses populist demagogy to get the befuddled
masses to go along with the repression of democratic rights. Right now,
the Militant"s picture of Venezuela centers on a workers and peasants
movement that has apparently arisen completely against the will and
without any participation by Chavez and his political grouping.  After
all, Chavez apparently tried (and failed?) to use the military to defeat
the peasant movement, didn't he, while covering up this crime with
social service projects?  

When they talk about the Chavez government, which they place in absolute
class counterposition to this movement (although the workers and
peasants fail to see this), their descriptions tend to strongly carry
the flavor of  some of the right-wing portrayals -- Chavez as a
strongman dictator who has used populist demagogy to fool the workers
and peasants into going along with a police-military regime that has
shoved aside democratic rights and parliamentary institutions in favor
of a bonapartist regime.

I think these descriptions need to be corrected to make them more
consistent with defending the government against the pseudo-democratic
attacks of the rightists and US imperialism.

Fred Feldman

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