Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela died this week after a lengthy battle with cancer. Much of the left across the globe has lauded Chávez because he won 15 elections, used some of Venezuela’s immense oil wealth to pay for social programmes and stood up to American imperialism in Latin America.
Neoliberals have chastised him as a dictator standing in the way of free markets. Whilst we have absolutely no truck with the neoliberals, our own assessment of Chávez is highly critical for our own reasons.
Should socialists hold up Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian, 21st century socialism? No, we definitely should not. Chávez’s ‘socialism’ was from above, a mix of pan-Latin American nationalism combined with the use of social welfare spending to build and expand his social base in Venezuelan society. He was not a revolutionary socialist or a Marxist as we understand it: he was not committed to the self-emancipation of the working class, he did not base his politics on the logic of the class struggle, nor did actually advance working class politics. Chávez was not introducing socialism slowly (over 14 years!) nor is Venezuela in transition to socialism – only the workers can do that.
Chávez formed a bourgeois government that administered the Venezuelan capitalist state and oversaw Venezuelan capitalism for over fourteen years. At no point did Chávez break from the national bourgeoisie in Venezuela and in reality he continued to interact with the international bourgeoisie, particular through oil (including with the US). He created a layer of Boligarchs.
Judging Chávez by the standards of working class self-organisation, his legacy is poor. The trade union movement which broke out of the old CTV unions and formed the UNT in 2003 had great potential to organise millions of workers. Within it was a class struggle current C-CURA, which pre-dated Chávez and had fought the old regime and its union bureaucracy allies. But the Bolivarian trade unionists – including people around the vice-president Maduro, stifled this movement and effectively neutered it, when militants refused to subordinate themselves to the government.
Although there was much rhetoric about workers’ control and there were certainly a number of nationalisations, in reality Venezuelan workers did not and could not, except for very fleeting moments (such as during the employers’ lock-out in 2002-03) exercise genuine democratic control at the point of production. In all the firms where workers’ control was proclaimed, the committees involved were very quickly incorporated or neutered, so that even those under government control were run like capitalist businesses for the imperatives of profit.
The PSUV, the party that Chávez built, was not a vehicle for socialism. It was only founded halfway through his administration and was a top-down, electoral organisation to bind his supporters close to his government. Although some socialists tried to work within it, in reality it crushed the space for independent working class organisation. The PSUV was more like the Cuban Communist Party, or perhaps the early PRI in Mexico. Such a party cannot be a vehicle for working class self-liberation.
In the realm of international relations, Chávez may have been rude to George Bush and refused to follow the dominant neoliberal Washington consensus, but he also gave sustenance to some of the worst, anti-working class regimes across the globe. No one should forget how he told Iranian workers at the militant Khodro car plant that Ahmadinejad was their friend. Chávez made friendships and alliances with Russia, China, Cuba and despots such as Mugabe, Ghadafi and Assad, where workers’ organisation is either expressly forbidden or savagely policed. He did not stand up for the workers in prison in those states; instead he acted as the PR man for their rulers.
The best characterisation of Chávez and his movement in the Marxist lexicon, which the AWL has held from the start, is that he was a Bonapartist. This designation foregrounds his defence of the Venezuelan bourgeois state and the bourgeois government that he headed. In terms of social basis, it emphasises the heterogeneous composition of his movement, drawing from all classes including sections of the ruling class, but also the central involvement of the military, as the force for stability at the core of the state. Chávez’s origins suggest that, as did the composition of his governments and the “civic-military” alliance at the centre of his rule. This lasted right down to the involvement of generals when his death was announced.
In terms of policy, Bonapartism identifies as state capitalist the measures Chávez took to rule, including the form of nationalisation he used, the welfare programmes he undoubtedly promoted and the peculiar lurches of apparent radicalism together with bureaucracy. Economically, he could establish a more stable Bonapartism because Venezuela has long had a peculiar rentier state resting on oil revenue. Chávez was also a Bonapartist in the sense of a populist politician, very much in the Latin American tradition of Cardenas in Mexico or Peron in Argentina. He could mobilise millions, but for goals he had set himself, with the limits heavily proscribed.
It is true that Chávez won successive largely free and fair elections. But to be a democrat, more is required than winning elections. His was a shallow bourgeois democracy with authoritarian features, with a hypertrophic executive and truncated parliament, even by bourgeois standards. Venezuela under Chávez was a long way from the consistent, many-sided, widely accountable and recallable, political and economic democracy that socialists want to create.
Chávez’s radicalism lurched after April 2002, when the US-backed coup failed to topple him. On his first visit to Britain in 1999 he expressed an interest in Blair’s third way. When he returned in 2006 at the height of his popularity, he was lauded by leftists in London, with fawning from Ken Livingstone, Tariq Ali and the (plainly degenerate Marxist) Alan Woods. The Hands of Venezuela campaign invited supporters to wave flags outside Chávez’s hotel, while the public meeting consisted of a four-hour long rabble to a sycophantic audience.
The eulogies will continue, with union leaders and socialists falling over themselves to praise him. The sight of Alan Woods, who believes his tendency are the only Marxists and everyone one else is an irrelevant sect he cannot bring himself to name, presented on Newsnight as a “confidant of Chávez” and claiming he had made half a revolution, was grotesque. Worse, Woods claimed Chávez had given a voice to those who had no voice. What drivel. Chávez articulated his own interests and spoke on behalf of the poor, but he did not permit the Venezuelan workers to speak for themselves, never mind make their own destiny.
Similar softness is found in Mike Gonzales’ piece for Socialist Worker and from the pretentious if loquacian oppositionist Richard Seymour. They seem to view Chávez as some kind of social democrat because of his government’s welfare spending. Yet his politics did not originate with the labour movement, nor was it based on the unions. It could mobilise forces, but it was not of the working class, even in a reformist sense. They merely repeat the mistakes Latin American socialists made with Cardenas, Peron and countless other Bonapartists, who incorporated socialists on the back of their leftist rhetoric.
The forces of the third camp are small in Venezuela. But they will need to wipe the slate clean of chavismo if they are to advance. The international should not fall into sentimental veneration – ruthless criticism should be the watchword.