A new type of socialism?

Issue: 146

Roger Cox

Mike Gonzalez, Hugo Chávez, Socialist for the Twenty-first Century (Pluto, 2014), £11.50


In 2004 I remember sitting in one of the minibuses that take the more well-heeled residents of Porto Alegre in Brazil from the centre to the suburbs, when the bus was stopped by the police outside the massive Gigantinho stadium and a long convoy of cars passed us. In one of them I saw Hugo Chávez. I shouted “Presidente Chávez” and the whole bus jumped up to catch a sight and take photos. Even among these middle class Brazilians, Chávez had an impact. He was on his way to the final rally of the World Social Forum, where he would give birth to Socialism of the 21st Century and upstage Brazil’s President Lula.

Mike Gonzalez’s book covers the rise of Chávez and what made him such an extraordinary figure. But this book is also important as part of the debate that touches us all in the European movement today, the question of what happens when the left gain power through elections and the crisis it causes for the ruling class. The experience in Venezuela can give us guidance in this debate.

Bolivarianism, built on the ideas of 19th century revolutionary Simón Bolívar, was central to the ideas of Venezuelan national liberation and inspired a number of groups. Chávez as a young officer joined The Movement for Bolivarian Revolution (BRM) whose aim was to prepare for an insurrection carried out by the young officer class with very little connection with any popular movement. The centrality of the army to the revolution was seen as paramount. However, Gonzalez explains how this conception of revolution was questioned by many on the Venezuelan left.

The BRM’s ideas were exposed by the great popular uprising of the Caracazo in 1989 against the imposition of austerity on the mass of the population. The principle question of the relationship between the military and the popular forces was now central. In 1992 the decision was made to mount a military coup which resulted in Chávez being imprisoned for two years. Despite its failure, the coup became a turning point for Chávez, making him a national figure.

Mike identifies three sets of ideas that influenced the movement after Chávez left prison and prior to his decision to stand for presidential election. First the idea of a coup led by army officers had by now been discredited within the BRM due to the past failure. The second influence was from the mass mobilisation of the masses from below in the Caracazo against the attacks from the state and the impact of neoliberalism. The direct experience of having to organise resistance gave rise to a range of social movements including trade unions, cultural, educational and women’s organisations that led to the discussions about the possibility of a real participatory democracy. The third way was to use the popular movement but as a base to support Chávez’s electoral victory.

In the end those who had coalesced around Chávez reluctantly accepted to have a form of electoral democracy not dominated by any political party, but to be transparent and subject representatives to recall. The central need of the Chávez government was to secure, one way or another, the wealth from oil to pay for the social projects that were so desperately needed. Gonzalez explains the manoeuvres that took place, each time enraging the ruling class more and more until, on 11 April 2002, they attempted to destroy the Chávez government by mounting a coup.

It must have been the very worst of luck for the Venezuelan rulers to have their coup televised from the inside. An Irish TV crew who had been making a documentary about Chávez recorded the whole affair, documenting the real horror of the counter-revolution from the inside in the film The Revolution will not be Televised. But the real joy was to see the role of the masses who—numbering 1 million—surrounded the Presidential Palace, and to see the fear of the rulers as they panic to escape.

Gonzalez makes it clear that it was the mobilisation of the masses that defeated the coup; they stepped forward as the makers of history. It wasn’t the officers or the clever politicians around Chávez but the workers, the poor, the women and youth who knew what to do and did it decisively.

This was the chance to build a mass movement that could take power; it was a turning point and it was lost. Despite this bloody nose, the ruling class continues to keep up the attacks encouraged by Chávez’s conciliatory response to the coup.

The savage destruction of the oil industry by a bosses’ strike in 2002-3 was again defeated by the masses by sacrifice and endurance. But what was needed was the bringing together of all the different elements of the popular resistance into one movement driven from the desire from below to build a new society. Instead Chávez continued to try to create a movement from above and under his control. With the best intention, if this does not lead to hell, it will lead to defeat and this book clearly shows this sad process unravel. The lessons are not just for Latin America but for us all.