[Marxism] Socialist Voice: Review of Wilpert's "Changing Venezuela by Taking Power"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Thu Jul 17 10:40:52 MDT 2008

Socialist Voice--Marxist Perspectives for the 21st Century
July 17, 2008 Web Edition: www.socialistvoice.ca

Taking Stock of Bolivarian Revolution: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power
By Derrick O'Keefe. 

Gregory Wilpert has pulled off a triumph on two fronts with his new book on
the Bolivarian Revolution, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso, 2007).
Most obviously, Wilpert's book - in both its scope and (sometimes almost
maddening) objectivity - is the most detailed and credible analysis yet
published of the Venezuelan revolution, which itself represents, arguably,
the single most significant challenge today to the hegemony of global

But Wilpert has not just produced a comprehensive look at the social,
economic and political transformation that has shaken the foundations of
Venezuela over the past decade; he has also delivered a sharp rebuke to one
of the trendiest, if dubious, political theories to appear on the academic
left in recent years. Wilpert's title is an unsubtle blast at John
Holloway's Changing the World Without Taking Power, a book that with its
theoretical ambition (and pretension) rivals Michael Hardt and Antonio
Negri's Empire in its attempt to carve out a new radical theoretical
manifesto - something that is about the last thing the left needs anyway,
but I digress. 

Holloway, a British academic who has been amongst the leading chroniclers of
the Zapatista movement in the Mexican province of Chiapas - which announced
itself dramatically with an armed uprising on January 1, 1994 (the day NAFTA
took effect) - makes the case that the left should abandon the field of
struggle for state power. In defence of this recommendation, Holloway points
to the historic failures of both state socialism(s) and social democratic
attempts to transcend or, in the latter's case, even reform capitalism in
any meaningful or permanent way. Elevating some of the success of the
indigenous resistance in Chiapas to the level of universal prescriptions,
Holloway argues that progressive forces should focus only on building
autonomous spaces of "anti-power," organizing on the local level and slowly
developing alternatives in every aspect of life and work in order to
eventually overwhelm the alienating and violent capitalist system. 

Against this theory of abstention at the level of the state, enter the
radical and inspiring example of the Venezuelan experience since 1998, where
the presence of an aggressively left-wing elected government has helped
encourage the growth of community organizing and popular participation.
Wilpert gives the basic chronology of the process, which has steadily
radicalized as it has beaten back right-wing attempts to overthrow it.
Wilpert spends very little time poeticizing against Holloway directly.
Instead, he rolls out chapter after chapter spelling out the tremendous
scope of change that has taken place since Hugo Chavez was first elected.
Wilpert, for instance, examines in detail changes in governance policy which
aim to implement the inclusive, participatory democracy outlined in the 1999
Bolivarian constitution, which was ratified by referendum and has become the
"little blue book" of the revolution - both studied intensely and carried in
pocket-sized form by Chavez's partisans. 

Subsequent chapters analyze economic, social and foreign policy. One of the
most interesting sections looks at one of the least reported developments in
Venezuela: the government's promotion of the "social economy," which
"encompasses at least five closely interrelated programs: redistribution of
wealth (via land reform programs and social policies), promotion of
cooperatives, creation of nuclei of endogenous development, industrial
co-management, and social production enterprises." 

In fact, between 1998 and 2005, the number of cooperatives in Venezuela
'went from under 1000 to more than 100,000. Here we have the left, precisely
because it has captured state power, able to build alternatives to
capitalist hegemony. To provocatively use Holloway's term against his
argument, "anti-power" in Venezuela can better be built from the bottom-up
because the left can promote its spread from the top down. 

This contribution alone, and especially Wilpert's attention to detail, would
have been enough to recommend Changing Venezuela By Taking Power. But
Wilpert's coup de grace is that he also serves up utterly unsentimental
criticism where appropriate, and an unromantic assessment of the
contradictions, dangers and myriad challenges that the Bolivarian Revolution
faces. In this, Wilpert does not let his intimacy and his engagement with
his subject colour his analysis. 

A couple of passages illustrate, for instance, a key Bolivarian
contradiction, and show that Wilpert eschews the simplistic "revolution from
below/from above" dichotomy that marks so much of the sectarian literature
on Venezuela. On the one hand, Wilpert notes the importance of Chavez's
"ability to bring together a previously very fragmented movement of
progressive civilians and military officers." This charismatic leadership
helped galvanize a movement: 

"It is thanks to his ability to rally the poor that the poor have broken
with their traditional apathy for politics and their pragmatic support for
the democratic system of the past . Their support for democracy is no longer
pragmatic, but has become filled with the hope that true democracy can
transform the country into a more egalitarian and just one."

But the leader's dynamism also poses risks to the ultimate achievement of
political and economic transformation. Although Wilpert notes that the
government has taken some measures to minimize the cult of personality
around Chavez, the problems of "personalism" are substantial. Wilpert

"[As] long as Chavez does not clarify the difference between uncritical
obedience and absolute loyalty, where the latter allows for constructive
critique and the former does not, he gives the impression of being
indispensable and unquestionable. More than that, it is well known in
Venezuela that, all too often, die-hard Chavistas will immediately
pigeonhole as 'escualidos' (squalids, as Chavistas like to call opposition
supporters) those who are critical of some aspect of Chavez or his
government, even if the critic is otherwise a supporter."

The strength of Wilpert's book is precisely this kind of frank, surgical
assessment. And while the author clearly thinks his subject is important, he
doesn't generalize from the Bolivarian experience a recipe that others must
follow. Holloway, in contrast, makes the mistake of generalizing from the
Zapatista experience, of which he is a partisan, sweeping and - in fine
post-modern academic form - often semi-indecipherable theoretical

Like all people who have organized for radical social change in conservative
times, the Venezuelans (along with the Bolivians and others in Latin
America) have and will face fierce opposition, both domestically and
internationally. The right-wing media outlets in Venezuela itself have been
so outrageous - the 2002 coup against Chavez has even been termed the
world's "first media coup" due to the overt participation of the private
media giants in the toppling of a democratic government - they have caused
their readership and credibility to plummet. The prevalent smear jobs and
caricatures of Chavez's term in office in the international press have,
unfortunately, been considerably more effective. 

As publisher of venezuelanalysis.com - by far the best aggregator of
English-language news and analysis about politics in Venezuela - Wilpert has
been steadily working to expose and counter this misinformation campaign.
His book compiles much of this material, while organizing and presenting it
in an accessible way. 

In Venezuela, the past decade has seen the shattering of the myth of "the
end of history" and its demoralizing corollary, "there is no alternative."
Today, the alternative(s) to capitalism remains to be found and built, and
it is of course up against innumerable obstacles, attacks, false starts and
errors. But the Bolivarian Revolution has reminded us all that beyond just
being a soothing slogan, it is indeed possible to fight for another, better
world. As Wilpert puts it: "Venezuela is recuperating the utopian energies,
which became exhausted with the failures of state socialism, of social
democracy, and of neo-liberal capitalism, merely by trying a different and
as yet relatively unexplored path." 

On that vital but difficult path to a world beyond neoliberalism, I can't
help but wish that there were more public intellectuals like Gregory
Wilpert, seriously engaged with processes of social change and serious about
communicating in broadly accessible language. Changing Venezuela by Taking
Power is a valuable addition to the bookshelves of all those who are trying
to make sense of, and change for the better, our unequal world. 

First published at Rabble.ca. Published by Socialist Voice with the author's


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