[Marxism] Venezuela debate

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Thu Aug 11 09:21:28 MDT 2005

Let me see if I can try to make some points clear in my discussion with
comrade Andrew Splane of the International Socialist Organization.

Andrew writes: "Apparently Joaquin wants to close down this debate even
taking place, as he's decided he opposes socialists in the US 'taking
all sorts of positions about strategies and tactics in other countries
and most of all in third world countries.'"

I don't oppose socialists having opinions on these matters, discussing
them and so on; I oppose socialist GROUPS in the United States taking
POSITIONS on these matters. Behind this, of course, is my biggest
difference with the ISO comrades, which is pretty much the difference I
have with the *entire* "Leninist" left. 

And that is I do not view the organizational forms which socialists
should adopt as flowing from some ideal form of organization, usually
attributed to Lenin, and which is said to be good for all times, places
and circumstances. On the contrary, I think the specific form of
organization should be a function of specific circumstances and concrete
political tasks.

If one examines what Marx, Engels and Lenin actually DID in the
organizational field you will see that this is in fact how they
approached the matter. There is the idea that Lenin in particular
invented or discovered the ideal form of proletarian organization, the
"party of a new type," as some people call it. 

But if you look at what Lenin actually said and did about organization
you will see that in reality, it had no relation to any ideal form he
was trying to mold the RSDLP and later the Bolsheviks into. You will not
find anywhere in what are said to be Lenin's seminal writings on the
party a description of what this ideal is and how it is to be put into

And a study of how the Bolsheviks actually functioned shows that these
fetishised forms bear no relation to how Lenin and his friends were
organized. For example, nowadays nothing is more quintessentially
"Leninist" than the "Internal Discussion Bulletin" to which all
dissenting or minority views must be restricted; however, during the
entire course of the struggle against tsarism Lenin's RSDLP and later
Bolshevik Party had no such institution: political debates were carried
out OPENLY in the party press.

This of course ALSO means that there was no such norm as that everyone
had to defend the same position in public, even if they disagreed with
it. If you were for boycotting the elections, you were free to say that,
although you could expect to get reamed politically by Lenin for having
that position.

And even when, on the eve of October, Zinoviev and Kamenev went public
with their opposition to the Central Committee's decision to head
towards insurrection, and Lenin was furious and tried to argue they
should be treated as scabs for having published this in the non-party
press, he got no support from the rest of the Bolshevik leadership.

In defending the (alleged) Leninist Model, a central argument is that
only such a party trained in the strictest military discipline can lead
the working class in overthrowing capitalism. But as the entire history
of Bolshevism prior to and during 1917 shows, including right up to the
time of the insurrection, the RSDLP and later Bolshevik party were not
such a party. Not even on the level of the dozen or two CC members was
such discipline expected or enforced.

Turning now to the concrete case of positions by U.S. groups on
Venezuela, there are, simply, no concrete political tasks associated
with a precise characterization, pro or con, of Chavez and his political
trajectory, not in the United States. It is not possible for the cadre
of a group here to put ANY position on Chavismo to the test of practice.
Worse, it isn't possible for a group here to know anything about a large
number of factors that are decisive in formulating a stance. 

In general, it is a mistake in my opinion to go around adopting
positions that, by their very nature, have to be articles of faith
because there is no way the cadre of the group adopting it can put it to
any sort of practical test.

This does not mean that these aren't questions that are not appropriate
for Marxists to analyze, discuss, or try to understand. But just as (I
hope) the ISO (at least) wouldn't go around taking positions on the law
of value, how to apply dialectical materialism in science, the
relationship between Marxism and humanism and many other things like
that, so would I urge it to not have group positions on questions like
the right strategy for China in the late 1920's or Venezuela today.

*  *  *

Andrew forcefully rejects my interpretation that "Calling on 'the
Venezuelan working class to take state power' is just an algebraic and
abstract way --a shamefaced way-- of saying 'Down with Chavez!'" He
calls this "nonsense" that "reeks" of dogmatic Stalinist methods and
says by making this accusation I have been "slandering and distorting
the position of the ISO."

I want to apologize to Andrew and the ISO for not having understood that
the ISO's position has changed, and am genuinely thrilled to welcome his
repudiation of my misinterpretation of the article. 

I take that repudiation as a real one, i.e., not just that the ISO
didn't mean to express in this particular article that specific position
of theirs, but rather that the ISO has abandoned its hostile attitude
towards the Bolivarian revolution and its leader, and that the article
should be read and interpreted with that change of position in mind, and
thus certain "algebraic" formulations should be filled out with a
different content than I imputed to them.

But by way of amelioration of my sins, I would like to point out that
this is definitely a very sharp change in their position, and one which
I hope the comrades will soon explain more fully and systematically (or
if they already have, I would appreciate a pointer to the article or
statement, as I haven't been able to find it).

As to what their position had been previously, there was no lack of
clarity. For example, Alan Maas wrote in the April 26, 2002, Socialist
Worker this explanation of Washington's hostility to Chávez: 

"Chávez has been a target since the Bush administration took over. The
Texas oil boys who run the White House want a stable regime in
Venezuela--the third-largest supplier of oil to the U.S.

"And Chávez, while falling short of his radical rhetoric in terms of
policies to redistribute the country’s oil wealth, is a sharp critic of
U.S. foreign policy.


The April 19, 2002, issue of Socialist Worker devoted a major part of
its analysis of the attempted coup against Chávez to warning working
people not to rely on him, claiming he'd done nothing for years. This is
the part of the article devoted to these subjects:

*  *  *

Will Chávez deliver on promises of change?

THE DEFEAT of the coup gave Chávez’s government a new lease on life. The
president announced a Federal Government Commission for a national
dialogue with the opposition. But Venezuela’s bosses aren’t about to
give up. They will wait for another opportunity to strike.

Chávez could take this opportunity to push his agenda for social reforms
further to the left. But Chávez is no revolutionary. He is a populist
who wants to reconcile various social forces to advance his own
nationalist agenda.

Compromises with the Venezuelan elite will lead Chávez to concede even
more to the neoliberal agenda than he already has. Many sectors that
supported Chávez’s return to power remain critical of his tight-fisted
control, the militarization of the regime and his record of failing to
deliver on promises.

Chávez was elected president because he represents a break with
Venezuela’s past of oligarchy, corruption and two-party control of the
system. He has implemented relatively mild social reforms by investing
state oil revenues in education, health care and small businesses. But
Chávez hasn’t spent the kind of money it would take to address the
country’s mass poverty.

Although he uses nationalist rhetoric to defend Venezuela’s right to
control its resources, Chávez doesn’t oppose international markets. He
has conscientiously paid Venezuela’s foreign debt each month and opened
up the country to oil exploration and investment by foreign

Venezuelans today face increasing unemployment, inflation, crime and
other effects of poverty. They need more than the promise of change
offered by Chávez. They need the reality of change.

The Venezuelans who came out in the streets to defeat the coup can
organize independently for real change in their communities and
workplaces. The reversal of the coup against Chávez shows where real
power lies in Venezuelan society--not with populist leaders, but with
the mass of poor and working-class people.

*  *  *

This, BTW, is the sort of analysis that leads me to say that it is
better for socialist groups in imperialist countries NOT to adopt
positions on revolutionary strategy and tactics in other countries. It
is embarrassing enough that some comrades held this sort of opinion;
making it the position of the group as a whole only makes it worse.

It is also the reason why I've interpreted the ISO's recent articles in
a certain way. My understanding was that the comrades held to a position
that "Chavez is no revolutionary," merely someone who has implemented
only "mild social reforms," a "populist" seeking to "reconcile various
social forces," who offered only "the promise of change" but not "the
reality of change" and would inevitably "concede more to the neoliberal
agenda than he already has." 

The Socialist Worker identified itself with those who opposed the coup
but nevertheless "remain critical of his tight-fisted control, the
militarization of the regime and his record of failing to deliver on

I guess my confusion has been compounded because the ISO's reversal of
what we're now told is an abandoned position appears to have been "in
pectore" -- in secret, like the Pope's naming of cardinals in certain
countries. Because I've searched the ISR, Socialist Worker and ISO
sites, and was unable to find an explanation of the change in their
position, and instead found what seemed to be echoes and reaffirmations
of the previous line.

I would urge the ISO comrades to be more forthcoming about their
analysis of the errors of their previous position and the lessons that
they draw. I think a self-critical statement would enhance the ISO's
prestige -- after all, as Fidel points out, among Communists,
self-criticism is a thousand times preferable to the criticism of

Not having the benefit of the ISO's own self-critical summing up of
their previous incorrect line, I can only offer my own view on where
they went wrong in their previous position.

I would say the core of the mistake is captured in this sentence from
the 2002 article I quoted: "He [Chavez] is a populist who wants to
reconcile various social forces to advance his own nationalist agenda."

What the comrades capture and reject there (incorrectly, in my opinion,
as I hope they now realize) is simply the way that revolutions tend to
present in Latin America in their initial stages, as movements around a
"national agenda" that speak to the interests of the broad masses of
people of that nation.

The measures adopted --literacy campaigns, massive expansion of access
to education and health care, subsidies to improve the diet of the
poorer layers of society-- may indeed seem mere "populism" and "mild
social reforms" that do not fundamentally challenge capitalism,
especially when looked at from the perspective of imperialist countries,
where many working people already have what most Venezuelans are getting
access to for the first time. (In an article as recent as the May 20,
2005, issue of Socialist Worker, Lee Sustar dismissively refers to these
reforms, known as "missions" in Venezuela, as "NGO-style programs.")

Why is it a mistake then to reject this? Because it is only by going
through the process of fighting for and implementing these and other
reforms (and most especially the agrarian reform) that the class
tendency of the national movement that has arisen can come to the fore,
and that this originally veiled, inchoate, and largely unconscious
tendency can become the conscious and openly proclaimed class character
or nature of the revolutionary process. 

It is the "national crisis" --the intolerable state that imperialist
domination and oligarchic rule have pushed the nation into-- that leads
to an unexpected collapse in bourgeois political and ideological
domination of that society. When that happens, the masses enter the
stage not as props in the background but as the central protagonists of
the drama. Through a whole series of experiences the toilers will become
conscious of their own interests, and that these are irreconcilable with
the interests of the oligarchs, capitalists and imperialists, and
eventually that these are irreconcilable with capitalism and imperialism
as such.

The Venezuelan revolution once again has given the most striking
confirmation of this dynamic of permanent revolution, of a revolution
that starts out originally as being for "national" and "democratic"
objectives growing into a socialist revolution in a single,
uninterrupted revolutionary process because there is no other way to
achieve the national tasks.

That is why it is wrong to counterpose the socialist revolution to the
national revolution and the national movement, and why it is at best
confusing to call on a working class in the situation that the
Venezuelan working class now finds itself in to "take state power." 

The toilers in Venezuela don't need to "take" state power, not in the
sense one would make that statement about Peru or Mexico or countless
other places: they need to *build* it. 

What I mean is that there is a revolutionary process underway in
Venezuela that has already begun to transform the state apparatus
because the revolutionaries occupy the top political offices of the
country. Usually what people mean when they say something like that the
workers need to take state power is that they need to throw the bums out
and put people who genuinely represent the interests of the working
people in those positions. That isn't the be-all and end-all of creating
a truly revolutionary government; but it is an important moment that has
already passed.

What revolutionaries do with those positions is to use them to promote
the organization and mobilization of the working people around the tasks
of the revolution and based on that to begin building new governmental
structures that are expressions of direct, participatory democracy.

Even in the strictly military field, as far as I can tell from afar, the
task right now isn't just or mostly to "smash the repressive forces of
the bourgeois state" (a fair amount of this smashing having been ALREADY
done albeit in a relatively "cold" and "gradual" way and how much
remains to be done is something we can't really judge). But it seems to
me the task is to build the armed people's power of the proletarian
state to be that is in gestation, the Bolivarian militias, and
especially in direct connection to the immediate tasks of the
revolution, such as defending the agrarian reform from
counterrevolutionary landlord violence. The landlord goon squads are the
"repressive bourgeois forces" that really could use some smashing just
about now.

That is how the National Revolutionary Militias arose in Cuba -- as
organs of the revolutionary "dictatorship" of the toilers -- to drive
through the agrarian reform.

The road --the ONLY road-- to socialist revolution in Venezuela TODAY is
in and through the national revolution. 

Unfortunately, it isn't clear to me that comrade Andrew, at least, and
perhaps the ISO as a whole has thought this through to the end. 

Andrew says, referring to the discussion around a socialism for the XXI
Century that comrade Hugo Chávez has posed before the working people of
Venezuela, and really Latin America and the world: 

"[T]he revolutionary Marxist tradition has a contribution to make to the
debate about what socialism is. Among Lenin's most important arguments
was that instead of lending every national awakening 'communist
coloring,' socialists should fight to build mass revolutionary workers'
parties that could help guide the fight for a society based on workers'

I'm not sure which of Lenin's writings on this subject Andrew is
referring to. It may seem scholastic, but I think it would be helpful if
Andrew went ahead and cited "chapter and verse," so to speak, because as
the late Jim Blaut explained in his wonderful book on decolonizing the
theory of the national question, the Bolshevik position on the national
question underwent a radical transformation around the time of World War
I. (Blaut's book has long been out of print, but Louis Proyect has on
his web site a collection of some of Jim's writings on the subject,
partly material he posted to this list before his death).

If I can be allowed to tremendously oversimplify, BEFORE 1914 the
Bolsheviks argued that Marxists should defend the right to
self-determination of oppressed nations so as to show the working people
of those nations that the real problem wasn't lack of national rights
but class exploitation, in other words, to win them AWAY from the
national movement. This was pretty much the standard issue left or
revolutionary social democratic position on the issue, though there was
a significant current (around Rosa Luxemburg) that wouldn't even concede
the right to self determination.

AFTER 1917, the Bolshevik position, and this was due OVERWHELMINGLY to
Lenin (as Trotsky himself recognized, for example in the discussions
with American comrades on the Black nationality in the United States),
was not to win the toilers AWAY from the national movement, but to build
a world united front with the national movements against imperialism and
fight for the working class to become the leading force WITHIN the
national movements.

This was the approach adopted by the Second Congress of the Comintern
and further elaborated and applied at the Congress of the Toilers of the
East held in Baku shortly thereafter, and summarized in the CHANGE from
the Manifesto's slogan of "Workers of the World, Unite!" to "Workers and
Oppressed Peoples of the World, Unite!"

This change of slogan and the political approach it captures was based
on the understanding of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism
and that it is a world system characterized by the division of the world
into a handful or exploiting nations and a big majority of oppressed and
exploited nations, and that it is this imperialist national oppression,
and not the rise of a native "national" bourgeoisie seeking to
consolidate internal markets for its development, that evokes national
movements in the colonial and semicolonial world today. 

But it would be a mistake to view Lenin's approach as some fundamental
revision that would have been rejected by Marx and Engels. On the
contrary, it was based on the analysis and stance of M&E towards some
national movements of their day. Marx and Engels (and especially Engels)
were defenders and promoters of the Irish and Polish national movements,
to the degree that Engels righteously denounced as chauvinists in the
First International those English affiliates that wanted to deny Irish
workers *in England* the right to set up their OWN section of the

There is even a famous passage --I think from one of Engels's letters--
where he explains that there are two nations in Europe that had the DUTY
to be nationalist BEFORE becoming internationalists, the Irish and the

The distinctively Leninist policy on the national question is based on
THIS approach, which was already clearly outlined by Marx and Engels
before the consolidation of imperialism as a world system in those two
cases which in very important ways prefigured what was to become the
generalized world system of relations between oppressor and oppressed
nations of the imperialist epoch.

A lot of the Trotskyist movement, for reasons having to do with it
having arisen in opposition to Stalin's attempt to twist the Second
Comintern Congress line in a completely opportunist direction in the
1920's, did not get it then and does not, to this day, get it.

To convince yourself, you only have to read Trotsky's discussion with
delegations from the U.S. SWP (and its predecessors) collected in the
Pathfinder book about Leon Trotsky on Black nationalism. Trotsky even
had to argue with the comrades and explain to them that the most
significant thing about the Garvey movement for working class
revolutionaries in the United States was that it was an expression of
the nationalist sentiments of an oppressed people, and not its
unrealistic stated program of returning to Africa.

It is this failure to understand that the nationalist sentiments and
aspirations of oppressed peoples, and the national movements they give
rise to, are by their nature progressive because they are a reaction to
imperialist domination, that one finds reflected in positions like those
the ISO expressed towards the Bolivarian revolution until recently. 

And thus, instead of viewing permanent revolution as a tendency and
dynamic inherent in these sorts of situations, and that helps illuminate
the course of development, the sectarian stance towards the national
movement transforms it into the "program" of Permanent Revolution whose
essence is to "save" the revolutionary upsurge from nationalism and
populism by transforming it into a socialist revolution. Moreover,
because "nationalism" and "populism" are seen as inherently bourgeois,
this becomes an ultra-urgent task that brooks no delay. Thus if you read
Joseph Hansen's "Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution," and especially the
material from the first few years of the revolution, you'll see repeated
references to how the Cuban leadership lost all kinds of valuable time
because it didn't *understand* Permanent Revolution.

This is also why some people from the SWP tradition now say they reject
Permanent Revolution. But it is fairly easy to demonstrate that Trotsky,
at least, was not an advocate of the "socialist revolution now"
interpretation of permanent revolution. This is from the most systematic
and mature presentation of his views, the Transitional Program:

*  *  *

"Colonial and semi-colonial countries are backward countries by their
very essence. But backward countries are part of a world dominated by
imperialism. Their development, therefore, has a combined character....
Democratic slogans, transitional demands and the problems of the
socialist revolution are not divided into separate historical epochs in
this struggle, but stem directly from one another.

"It is impossible merely to reject the democratic program; it is
imperative that in the struggle the masses outgrow it.... As a primary
step, the workers must be armed with this democratic program. Only they
will be able to summon and unite the farmers. On the basis of the
revolutionary democratic program, it is necessary to oppose the workers
to the 'national' bourgeoisie....

"The relative weight of the individual democratic and transitional
demands in the proletariat’s struggle, their mutual ties and their order
of presentation, is determined by the peculiarities and specific
conditions of each backward country and to a considerable extent by the
degree of its backwardness. Nevertheless, the general trend of
revolutionary development in all backward countries can be determined by
the formula of the permanent revolution in the sense definitely imparted
to it by the three revolutions in Russia (1905, February 1917, October

*  *  *

First note how Trotsky talks about "permanent revolution." He says it is
"the general trend of revolutionary development," essentially

Second, note the stress Trotsky places on the *democratic* program. It
is the basis for the alliance with the peasantry (and, in a place like
Venezuela, with the urban poor, a much more pronounced phenomenon today
than in the 1930's). But it is also the terrain on which the fight for
the political independence of the working class takes place. ("On the
basis of the revolutionary democratic program, it is necessary to oppose
the workers to the 'national' bourgeoisie.")

Third, note that Trotsky's whole starting point in this section is
imperialist world domination. The "democratic" program Trotsky is
talking about is not the program of a "bourgeois" revolution, but of an
anti-imperialist revolution. The *measures* may be largely the same as
those of movements that gave rise to bourgeois nation-states, but the
alignment of class forces and their dynamics are completely different.
The "national" bourgeoisies, tied by 1000 strings to imperialism, are
essentially anti-national. This is what makes possible the dynamic of
permanent revolution, which comes out of the working class being able to
take the lead in the national movement because the local ruling class is

The so-called "program" of permanent revolution, to hot-house a shift
from democratic national tasks to socialist tasks as quickly as
possible, isn't what Trotsky advocated. Trotsky advocated a fight for
hegemony within the national ("revolutionary democratic") movement, not
breaking the toilers AWAY from it. He says this explicitly, warning his
followers not to "reject the democratic program; it is imperative that
in the struggle the masses outgrow it."

I am glad to hear from comrade Andrew that the ISO has now rejected the
sorts of political conclusions that flow from this kind of "program of
permanent revolution" analysis and which the ISO comrades very clearly
expressed in the past, and especially in that 1992 article I quoted, and
look forward to their more generalized explanation of their change in


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