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ISR Issue 46, March–April 2006

An unconscious socialist revolution

By Américo Tabata

Américo Tabata is a member of the national committee of the Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS) in Venezuela. He is an activist in the trade-union movement and a regional leader of the National Workers Union (UNT). He is a worker currently fighting the multinational, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, for illegally firing him. This article is translated from the January–March 2006 issue of Venezuela Socialista, the political-theoretical magazine of the PRS. It has been edited for space. Translated by Lance Selfa.

AT THE World Social Forum in Caracas, there will be many activists from the Left in Latin America and from other continents. Many honestly believe that Venezuela is truly on a fast track to “twenty-first century socialism” at the hands of President Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Leaders of organizations of farm workers, indigenous people, trade unionists, students, workers, antiwar and anti-imperialist activists, environmentalists, women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and others who are looking for an alternative to predatory, transnational capitalism have hope in the Venezuelan revolutionary process. They are coming to our country to learn about the experiences of working people.

It’s a fact that a large number of the meetings and discussions at the social forum will revolve around political and theoretical debate about twenty-first century socialism. Without a doubt, this will take center stage because of the strategic importance of debating ways to go beyond capitalism and to begin to build a society without inequality, and without exploited and exploiters.

The Venezuelan revolutionary process has included hard struggles between the working and popular masses against the bourgeoisie and against imperialism. No doubt, most readers of this article, who are committed to fighting for the interests of workers and defending the Venezuelan people, will likely share this judgment. But this also raises important points that we should consider before we fully engage in the debate about the twenty-first century socialism that President Chávez proposes. We will formulate them in a series of questions: At what point can one call the Venezuelan revolution “socialist?” When will it be possible to talk about socialism in Venezuela? Do Chávez’s proposals make the Venezuelan revolution socialist, or, on the contrary, was this always latent within it?

Between the triumphant popular revolution of April 13, 2002, that saw the unprecedented defeat of a coup-installed dictatorship, to the working-class and popular victory against the bosses’ strike and sabotage against PDVSA (Venezuela’s state oil company) in December 2002–January 2003, there is a profound connection. Both events were an integral part of the socialist revolution in Venezuela and have something in common: they fought the same enemies, imperialism, and the majority of the national bourgeoisie. But, perhaps most important to both phases of this revolutionary process is the fact that the mobilization of ordinary people and workers spontaneously, and unconsciously, challenged the political, social, and economic bases of capitalism as well as imperialist intervention.

In this way, from our point of view, the social and political process that has been developing in Venezuela always has had an essentially socialist character—whether or not workers and ordinary people consciously fought for socialism. Nevertheless, the methods used (permanent mobilization) and the enemy (the bourgeoisie and imperialism) have given the struggle this character.

In no revolutionary process have workers and ordinary people consciously fought for socialism. They struggle to meet their most immediate needs: land, food, homes, work, education, health, an end to war, and greater civic participation, because their voices and their discontent are ultimately heard in the struggle for better living conditions. Illiterate and culturally backward Russian peasants didn’t fight behind the banners proclaiming socialism. Neither did the Chinese or Cuban people. By the same token, neither do Venezuelan workers and ordinary people today. But at bottom, the struggle is essentially against capitalism, as they confront its dire consequences on the social and economic terrain. What’s more, they use revolutionary methods, challenging the bourgeois status quo.

This is to say that in Venezuela today, an unconscious socialist revolution that goes so far as to challenge the capitalist mode of production, is unfolding. However, what is missing is a revolutionary party that can organize and orient that working class and popular mobilization towards taking power, and, through its organizations, create a workers’ and popular government that can overturn a system where a minority rules over a majority in favor of a workers’ democracy where the minority submits to the will of the majority.

This is how we can respond to the main questions that we posed earlier: the peoples’ struggle against Acción Democrática, COPEI, and the other bourgeois parties and imperialism is, in its dynamic, methods, historical objectives, and by virtue of its enemy, a socialist revolutionary process. It wasn’t Chávez who decreed this. On the contrary, it was always latent, and it expressed itself dramatically during the failed coup in April 2002 and in the two-month-long bosses’ strike and sabotage against our oil company.

What is twenty-first century socialism?

At the last World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil (2005), and later at a 2005 May Day speech in Caracas, Chávez proposed that it was necessary to transcend capitalism and that the only alternative was socialism. Irrespective of the attitude that we take on the character of twenty-first century socialism, it is very important that Chávez injected a critique of capitalism and a discussion of socialism into the public debate. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new ideology, sustained by Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of “the end of history,” asserted that capitalism and bourgeois representative democracy had triumphed on the corpse of socialism. Chávez has helped to exorcise this ghost and to open up a debate on socialism as an alternative to capitalism. This is something rarely seen in a climate still dominated by the ideology of neoliberalism.

Still, in any case, it is necessary to define what twenty-first century socialism is. When we criticize Chávez’s conception, some comrades tell us that twenty-first century socialism is still a work in progress. Therefore, it’s premature to criticize it. For our part, we believe that if Chávez hasn’t been more specific about what he means, his most important advisers have been more forthcoming. On the other hand, to consider Chávez’s ideas, one must not only take account of what is said and written about it, but also to observe the concrete manifestations and policies that are supposed to be setting us on the road to socialism in the twenty-first century. That is to say, we must take account of government actions to see if we really are on the road to socialism.

Regarding the definition of twenty-first century socialism, what Heinz Dieterich, one of Chávez’s most important advisers, says is very clear. In an appearance at the sixteenth World Festival of Youth held last August in Caracas, Dieterich discussed “endogenous development,” one of the key parts of Chávez’s conception of twenty-first century socialism: “it has been called developmentalism, CEPALismo,1 import substitution, a social market economy, spiritual socialism, or Keynesianism. It deals with a market economy, directed and animated by a corporate state in the past, but which relies on a more democratic state today.” Later, he said: “The objective conditions for socialism don’t exist today. We must develop them alongside our democratic developmentalism.” He added, referring to other aspects of Chávez’s twenty-first century socialism, “[M]any revolutionaries think that [the existence of] cooperatives, workers’ self-management and firms producing for the social market mean that Venezuela has already entered a phase of twenty-first century socialism. This belief is mistaken.” Straight from the horse’s mouth!

Is Chávez building socialism in Venezuela?

From our point of view, we think the answer to this question is no. We will explain why. It’s true that the Venezuelan government has an oppositional posture towards imperialism, personified by President George Bush, and has expropriated some factories and agricultural lands. But these measures are limited and restricted to those few enterprises whose bosses had abandoned them. In reality, no great national enterprise or transnational has been expropriated—not even during the height of the 2002–2003 bosses’ strike, when such an action would have been possible and justifiable. What’s more, such an action would have had mass support from a population that had directly felt the dire impact of that criminal and anti-popular strike.

Undoubtedly—and the sabotage of PDVSA highlighted it—to build socialism in Venezuela it would be necessary and important to take concrete steps in the oil sector to begin to transform the relations of production and to begin to encroach on the logic of capitalist exploitation. This would be doubly important in that sector, where transnationals play such a heavy role and imperialism has such a great interest. Nevertheless, this is not the case at all, beyond the slogan of “PDVSA is for the people now.” It can’t be denied that a substantial amount of the income from petroleum sales is being used to fund the “missions.”2 But this contrasts with some points that seem to us important to consider. First, it’s appropriate to mention something about the substitution of operating contracts for the creation of mixed public-private enterprises. The government, through the oil ministry and the president, insists on arguing that this is a step toward twenty-first century socialism. We, on the other hand, think that this isn’t the case. What has been done, instead, is that PDVSA has changed the way it contracts firms to work with it. In the past, private firms were contracted to provide goods and services to PDVSA. Today, they are made partners of the state. Before they were entities external to PDVSA. Now they are part of the state oil company thanks to their partnership with the state. Another feature to consider is petroleum concessions. Not only does Chávez hold up private-public partnerships as a great advance, but he also touts the opening up, without any consultation with oil workers, of huge areas to transnationals for oil exploration. This is the case with the Delta Platform and the Rafael Urdaneta Project, which are being run by companies like Chevron/Texaco, Statoil, and Gazprom. We sincerely believe that concessions like these to multinationals make it very difficult to move us in a socialist direction, not to mention the ignoring of participatory democracy by not having consulted those most affected by these decisions: the workers.

But we see the same thing in many different sectors of the economy. Last year, Chávez announced the reopening of the textile plant, Hilanderías Tinaquillo, property of the powerful businessman León Mishkin. Mishkin had put hundreds of workers on the street when he closed the plant in 1992. In a public ceremony, the president announced an agreement between the state and the businessman, by which the state would grant Mishkin $6.3 million to reopen the factory. In other words, a businessman who had thrown his firm’s employees into the street was being publicly rewarded with state funds—and this was being touted as part of twenty-first century socialism.

While it talked about socialism and transcending capitalism, the government recently agreed to an alliance with the Construction Chamber of Commerce and with the bankers’ association—both sectors with members who collaborated with the coup in 2002 and the sabotage of PDVSA—to launch a program for housing construction with a budget of $3.4 million.

Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that well-known bosses’ representatives, like the president of the bankers’ association, state that “capital can live with socialism.” Or that in the past general assembly of Fedeindustria, the main bosses’ association, the central issue discussed was “Private Property Under 21st Century Socialism.” All of this received a seal of approval from Chávez, who, on May 22, 2005, said in his television program ¡Álo Presidente!: “Socialism is not in contradiction with economic development nor with private property.”

In our opinion, what Chávez is putting forward as “socialism” is very limited. In reality, it is capitalism where collaboration between classes would prevail. What is aimed for is a society where capital would play its supposed and impossible “social function,”3 while achieving a hypothetically more democratic distribution of wealth.

The socialism that the president proposes is an unachievable chimera that has never appeared in the world before. Capital exists to reproduce itself without limit. It has no heart and no country and has no interest in satisfying human need. It is only interested in profit. What’s more, the bosses have no interests in common with workers.

But beyond these serious limitations, the majority of ordinary people and workers have embraced the president’s proposals with great interest. As has happened with other Chávez proposals, the people take them seriously, interpret them in the heat of the revolutionary process, and broaden them to meet their immediate needs.

Perhaps Chávez never imagined that the people would put his proposals into practice. More likely, as they have before, the people will go beyond Chávez’s original intentions when he began talking about socialism. And this is what we are seeing today. A taboo goal like socialism; the heresy of Marxism, until recently held down by the dead weight of neoliberal conventional wisdom; the possibility of openly criticizing capitalist exploitation—all are today’s daily bread in working people’s conversations. The expectations around the issue of workers’ self-management, together with the day-to-day class struggle, strengthen demands for a referendum against the existing trade-union bureaucracy and the creation of a union federation dedicated to class struggle. Peoples’ interest in knowing what socialism is, and the hunger to learn about it, exists side by side with the vigilance of community organizations arrayed against corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies and the daily struggles in the health committees, in the water roundtables, and in the land committees.4

Are the “missions” examples of socialism?

President Chávez regularly insists that the Mercal food distribution network, the missions Barrio Adentro, Robinson, Sucre, Vuelvan Caras, Ribas, and the rest are socialist creations. On many occasions, he has said that these policies are an expression of twenty-first century socialism. We have decided to analyze these policies because they give us another opportunity to engage in the debate about socialism, which is, of course, not only a theoretical debate, but also something that confronts workers and the Venezuelan people every day.

All of the missions started by the Chávez government are democratic organizations. That is, they attempt to respond to endemic problems that confront the majority of the population. They constitute fundamental rights for the development and preservation of social life, such as the rights to food, health, education, and work. In other words they try to guarantee basic human rights. They are democratic demands to the extent that all human beings should have them. But in our country, as much as in the rest of Latin America and other of the world’s poor regions, these fundamentally human and democratic demands are inaccessible to the majority of people, owing to the individualistic and unequal capitalist system that is directed toward profit instead of human need. As a way of responding to basic human needs, the missions have become revolutionary gains. Effectively, for many people in our poor communities, having a doctor in a neighborhood, almost a family doctor, has become a revolutionary demand, when it should be a basic right for everyone. It’s that way because in capitalism, the most elemental and basic rights have become “revolutionary” gains for working people. Nevertheless, health care, education, and the right to work continue being democratic—and not specifically socialist—demands, similar to those such as social security, national independence and sovereignty, defense of natural resources, democratic participation in civic affairs, and other demands.

What do we want to say about this? The missions, being community and revolutionary gains for the oppressed masses, are not properly understood socialist measures. Rather, they are democratic achievements, wrested from the bourgeoisie and imperialism by popular struggle.

Recently, the government minister Aristóbulo Istúriz, speaking about the government’s education programs, said that these try “to assure that basic aspects like fun and play are included with the aim of educating a social human being who strives for solidarity and not for competition.” This assertion, like those involving the “solidarity economy” based on cooperatives, is another chimera. It is impossible to achieve this kind of spirit throughout the population while we are still bound by the limits of capitalist consumerism, individualism, and competition.

The missions, Mercal, the cooperatives, etc., will not be able to develop and to become structural policies that can transform capitalist greed into values of solidarity if the revolutionary process doesn’t advance uninterruptedly toward socialism, breaking the chains that keep us shackled to capitalism. To think that it is possible that today’s youth in the Bolivarian schools or in the Ribas or Sucre missions, can develop values like solidarity, comradeship, interest in the common good, and rejection of material things in the midst of a national environment where consumerism and easy luxury prevails and is promoted through the local, regional, and global media, is, at the very least, utopian.

Democratic policies, for more benefits that the people gain by right, will not be consolidated while private property in the means of production and capitalist individualism prevail. Meanwhile, there will always be a “sword of Damocles” hanging over them, in that they can disappear at any moment when they don’t fit with the demands of bourgeois and capitalist profitability.

What, then, is socialism?

Socialism is, in essence, a system where social and collective property in the means of production prevails. Where workers are the owners and decision makers in the factories, businesses, and services. Where farm workers have control over farm production. And in general, where all people exercise direct control of the government and public decisions, through the democratic participation of their organizations in political and state power.

It is in this context that experiments like the missions, Mercal, the cooperatives, the Bolivarian schools, the incubators of endogenous development, will cease being islands in a capitalist sea, and will take root in ground fertile for their deepening and development.

Only by radically transforming the relations of production, and beginning to build socialism, can democratic policies like those discussed above reach their full potential.

1 Economic policies associated with the United Nations’ Economic Commission on Latin America (known in Latin America by its Spanish initials, CEPAL) in the 1950s and 1960s that promoted economic development based on import substitution and developing the national economy.

2 The Chávez government has established twelve new social welfare programs called “missions,” covering health, education, housing, and employment.

3 Capital’s “social functions” are capitalism’s social impacts such as organizing the economy, providing jobs, creating a division of labor, etc.

4 These government encouraged neighborhood-level committees oversee projects in the missions. For example, health committees composed of neighborhood residents in particular areas oversee local clinics in the Misión Barrio Adentro, the primary health-care delivery program involving medical personnel from Cuba. For more details, see, for example, "A People's Health System in Venezuela," Venezuela Analysis, December 1, 2004, These neighborhood-based committees often find themselves in conflict with government bureaucracies populated by opponents of the Chávez government.

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