Bonapartism in Venezuela

Submitted by Anon on 4 November, 2005 - 11:03

“By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate – in order to preserve its possessions – the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘saviour’. This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions.”

Leon Trotsky, Again on the question of Bonapartism, March 1935, in Writings 1934-35

“I said this before becoming president… Venezuela is a kind of a bomb. We are going to begin to deactivate the mechanism of that bomb. And today, it’s not that it is totally deactivated, but I am sure that it is much less likely that this bomb explode today.”

Hugo Chávez to Venezuelan and US business representatives, 6 July 2005

By Paul Hampton

How do Marxists analyse a regime like the one in Venezuela, where capitalism is still the dominant mode of production but the old bourgeois parties no longer control the state?

Marxists believe that the essence of capitalist society is the extraction of surplus labour from the waged working class. The working class produces the wealth and the capitalists expropriate profit from workers, because these bosses own and control the means of production (the businesses, the factories and mines — the basic industry).

But this is not sufficient to explain the role of the state or the character of politics. At a fundamental level, the state is the executive committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto.

But they also understood that under capitalism, politics and economics were not fused in the same way as in many pre-capitalist societies — such as feudalism. On the contrary, they argued that the state had a “semblance of independence” in relation to the contending classes it stood over. They came to the conclusion that it was not necessary for the bourgeoisie to govern politically in order to rule socially.

They also understood that in periods of crisis, where the class struggle had reached a stalemate — it was possible for a military regime — “the rule of the praetorians” — often led by a strongman, to rule in the long term interests of the capitalist system while remaining above some sections of capital and the labour movement.

The classic form of this kind of regime analysed by Marx and Engels was the rule of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in France (1852-70). In February 1848 king Louis Philippe was disposed. In June 1848 the working class movement was viciously put down. But the bourgeois parties were unable to consolidate their rule. Louis Napoléon was elected president of the new republic in December 1848, but the constitution allowed the president only one term. After unsuccessfully attempting to change the law, Bonaparte staged a coup in December 1852.

He established a military regime that concentrated power in its own hands at the expense of parliament and intervened in finance and industry to hothouse capitalist development while repressing the workers’ movement. Bonaparte organised his own forces, “the Society of the 10 December”, and appealed directly to peasants and workers. In the Eighteenth Brumaire Louis Bonaparte (1852) Marx brilliantly outlined this form of rule.

For Marx and Engels Bonapartism was not simply a term of abuse or derision. It characterised the tendencies and direction of a peculiar regime and armed the working class with a clear, critical attitude towards it. Many radicals and socialists at the time, such as Proudhon wrote admiringly about Louis Napoléon, while the regime cultivated workers through construction projects and an imperial foreign policy. Marx and Engels remained unremittingly critical.

They also extended their analysis of Bonapartism to other societies – for example to Bismarck in Germany and to Simon Bolívar (see Solidarity 3/54, 24 June 2004:

During the 1930s the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky further developed this conception of Bonapartism, applying it to China, Germany and France. But Trotsky’s most significant extension of Bonapartism was to Mexico (see box). His analysis is particularly pertinent to our understanding of Venezuela today.


Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 as the old mode of rule was in an advanced state of decomposition. After 1958 Venezuela had a stable, formally democratic state that was in fact a polyarchy of two parties, AD and COPEI. This regime — known as puntofijismo — was maintained by the huge rents derived from the country’s oil industry.

This system broke down after 1983 and the country went through two decades of economic contraction. The response of the two ruling parties was neoliberalism, which only made the situation worse. It also undermined the legitimacy of their mode of rule.

Chávez was elected because he pledged to end the old political system — through holding a constituent assembly and recasting the state. He summed up his role soon after coming to power: “Venezuela is a ticking time bomb and I’m here to defuse it.”

Chávez has replaced the old regime with his own distinctive form of Bonapartist rule.

Essential to any Bonapartist regime is the role of the army. Chávez is a career soldier and this conditions his outlook and politics. This is not simply because he tried to seize power in 1992 through a military coup. It is widely recognised that Chávez has militarised politics in Venezuela.

Chávez has made it clear in interviews with sympathetic journalists such as Richard Gott and Marta Harnecker that a reconstructed “civilian-military alliance” is the key to his politics. His organisation, the MBR-200, formed in the early 1980s, was made up largely of middle level officers, with others in a secondary role.

The armed forces have been central from the beginning of Chávez’s rule. In the Constituent Assembly in 1999, 26 out of 131 delegates were military officers, all from Chávez’s “Patriotic Pole” slate. There are a large number of military personnel in civilian positions. One estimate has 800 senior government jobs and nine state governors (out of 23) held by officers.

The new constitution substantially increased the role of the army in politics and society. It gives the army an increased role in maintaining “internal order” and demands it be “an active participant in national development”.

What this meant in practice was demonstrated by the various “Plans”. Plan Pais, inaugurated in February 1999, involved tens of thousands of military personnel from all four forces in tackling problems in education, health and infrastructure.

Similarly Plan Bolívar, a scheme launched in 2000, involved massive funds for public works channelled through the army to repair schools and hospitals, set up medical clinics, clean up projects and even low cost food distribution.

The National Plan for Citizen Security, instituted in May 1999, gave the National Guard — part of the armed forces — responsibility for crime — and effective control of the police.

Giving the military a public role did not end corruption. Millions of dollars were paid to non-existent companies and allegations of human rights abuses by the DISIP security service followed the floods in 1999. And although the army has not yet been used to suppress genuine workers’ struggles, it has played a repressive role against indigenous people and environmentalists fighting plans to construct power lines into Brazil.

The relationship between Chávez and the armed forces was also demonstrated by the coup in April 2002. Only two senior officers, and only 200 other officers out of 8,000 (plus some retired personnel) joined the attempt to overthrow him. And after the coup, Chávez was able to purge those elements hostile to his rule, by retiring generals and admirals.

Hypertrophic executive

The inflated status of the executive is also a sign of Chávez’s Bonapartism. As Venezuelan-based academic Steve Ellner put it, the new Constitution created a “powerful executive whose authority is unchecked by other state institutions”.

For example the Constitution extends the presidential term from five to six years and allows for immediate re-election, which was previously barred. The president appoints his own vice-president and has no prime minister. He has sole power over military promotions and a significant say in the appointment of judges. For example earlier this year Chávez appointed 12 extra Supreme Court judges, giving him a majority in the court.

Gregory Wilpert, editor of the Venezuelanalysis website and generally sympathetic to Chávez, acknowledges this facet of his regime. He wrote: “Another area of criticism of the 1999 constitution is that it has centralized presidential power even more than the already somewhat presidentialist constitution of 1961. The increased presidential powers include the ability to dissolve the National Assembly, following three votes of non-confidence by two thirds of the National Assembly, declare a state of emergency, freely name ministers and their area of responsibility, the extension of the president’s term from five to six years, and allowing for an immediate consecutive re-election.” (Venezuela’s New Constitution 2003)

Since coming to power, Chavez has pursued generally conservative economic policies, while increasing the role of the state in the economy.

The key to his rule has been the re-establishment of control over the state-owned oil company PDVSA after the defeat of the December 2002-January 2003 lockout. PDVSA says it will make $70 billion this year, providing $10 billion to the treasury – or over one-third (35%) of the federal budget. The role of the state in economic life has increased dramatically since Chávez came to power. Government spending has grown from 19% of GDP to 31% last year.

Chávez has continued to honour contracts with US and other international oil companies. Venezuela is the United States’ leading foreign supplier of crude oil. According to Fortune magazine, in the first half of 2005, it supplied one-seventh of the US’s imported oil.

And Chávez has continued to encourage foreign investment. He told Fortune that; “foreign corporations should rest assured and have faith in our laws and in our government. We’re doing very good business with them. Almost all the oil companies in the world are in Venezuela — Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, Petrobras, Statoil, Shell.” (3 October 2005)

The windfall from higher oil prices has given Chávez the funds to spend the oil money on social programmes. These reforms have benefited some of the poorest sections of Venezuelan society – but also helped cement his rule.

Relations with civil society

Chávez talks about the “sovereignty” of the people as the “protagonists” in his regime and about “participatory democracy”. His attack on the old system went as far as repudiating the old parties and other social organisations such as the CTV trade union federation that were integrated into the old regime.

The Chavistas claim a special relationship with social movements, and the constitution opens some opportunities for these movements and ad hoc organisations to participate in state structures.

Yet his own party, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) is hardly a model of democracy. Even MVR members have complained that sections of the old elite that have been elected on the MVR slate, and that the party has little internal democracy or internal life.

In 2001, Chávez proposed re-establishing the MBR-200 and revived the idea of Bolivarian circles, local cells first organised by the MBR-200 in 1994. These groups, with government backing and pledged to the constitution, grew rapidly at the time of the coups. They have become the backbone of his social welfare programmes, rather independent organisations with much distance from his regime.

Chávez supporters in the unions also pushed for a new union federation to replace the CTV. The formation of the UNT in 2003, after the CTV was discredited by its involvement in the coup attempts was certainly welcomed by the government. However the UNT is not simply an instrument of the regime — though it faces real pressures of co-option (see article in the next Solidarity).

In classic Bonapartist fashion, Chávez appeals over the heads of organisations, directly to the masses of people — using for example his weekly TV show, Alo Presidente. However he has not managed to fully institutionalise his relationship to civil society or to the mass of ordinary Venezuelans.

There are real dangers for the UNT and other social movements faced with the Bonapartist regime. The first danger is the readiness to resort to repression in the face of a progressive struggle. The other danger is co-option — incorporation into the structures of the regime, providing it with a radical veneer — but at the cost of destroying the potential of an independent movement.

For all the rhetoric against neoliberalism and about “twenty first century socialism”, Chávez has established a Bonapartist form of rule and set about sinking roots in Venezuelan society. This process is unfinished — unlike similar Latin American populists Chávez does not have fully institutionalised party or structures such as dependent trade unions to prop up his role.

But he continues to rule in favour of capital — mainly Venezuelan national capital without being completely hostile to multinational capital. This must be the starting point for developing a working class policy towards his government.

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