By Visha Gopal
In a left-wing culture where the normal method of “debate” is either to slanderously misrepresent your opponent or ignore her existence, the discussion on Venezuela at this year’s No Sweat conference was a welcome change. It provided the 80 or so anti-capitalist activists who came to the session with a chance to consider and discuss clearly distinct assessments of the ongoing struggles in Venezuela, while at the same time raising a number of issues of major importance to Marxist theory.
The speakers were Paul Hampton from No Sweat and Rob Sewell from Hands Off Venezuela. Paul was careful to stress that his contribution did not represent a formal No Sweat “position”, but rather his own analysis and that of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty; Rob was less circumspect, speaking for HOV without qualification but clearly presenting the position of Socialist Appeal. The fundamental outlines of the debate, working-class independence vs Third Worldist populism, were clear.
Rob Sewell described the situation in Venezuela as an “unfinished revolution”, admitting that Chavez has not overthrown capitalism but emphasising the positive achievements of his government and the faith which large sections of the mobilised Venezuelan masses place in it. He argued that a stance sharply hostile to or even critical of Chavez would alienate revolutionary socialists from the mass movement. He also claimed that Chavez was genuinely moving to the left and that the question of his relationship to the Venezuelan workers movement was not yet decided. He finished by defying Paul and members of the audience to deny that Chavez’s achievements were fundamentally “progressive”.
Paul Hampton disputed Rob’s detailed descriptions of the Chavez government, providing a wealth of detail on Chavez’s stated politics, on his links with both Venezuela and international capital, on the reality of his “co-management” projects and so on. But he also criticised Hands Off Venezuela’s fundamental approach, which largely ignores Venezuela’s growing labour movement except as a chorus in support of Chavez. Paul argued that solidarity with the new UNT union federation and other working-class organisations in Venezuela is crucial; activists should concentrate on this, not on defending Chavez’s bourgeois party and government, which are fundamentally a barrier to working-class power.
In the discussion from the floor, one speaker argued that Hands Off Venezuela are playing the same role as those who argued for the Chilean working class to trust Salvador Allende’s “constitutional” road to socialism in the early 1970s and thus helped disarm it in the face of Pinochet’s coup. Another pointed out that, in assessing political movements as “progressive”, Rob Sewell was departing from the basic Marxist approach, which is to fight for independent working-class action, not to side with “progress” in general by supporting whichever bourgeois movement we think is least bad.
The consensus seemed to be that Paul had won the argument hand down. Hopefully the debate will continue, although Hands Off Venezuela didn’t bring many people to the No Sweat conference — and didn’t reciprocate by inviting us to their conference on December 3!