The state of revolutions

Issue: 113

Joseph Choonara

A review of D L Raby, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today (Pluto, 2006), £15, Tariq Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean—Axis of Hope (Verso, 2006), £14.99 and Michael Lebowitz, Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century (Monthly Review Press, 2006), £10.95

These three books take seriously the challenge, laid down by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez at the 2005 World Social Forum, to reinvent socialism for the 21st century. Each of the books attempts to do this with reference to recent struggles in Latin America, in particular the unfolding ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ in Venezuela.

D L Raby’s book draws on the author’s deep understanding of the region’s movements. This is put to good effect in two long chapters on Venezuela and Cuba, which contain useful historical material and insights. However, the main function of these chapters is to help support a highly controversial argument developed elsewhere in the book. For Raby, socialism today means ‘a state of revolutionary popular power in permanent tension with capitalism and imperialism’ (p262). Such inherently unstable regimes, and Raby has in mind both Cuba and Venezuela, must hold out until ‘such time (still remote) as revolution and popular power/Socialism spreads through most of the world’ (p65).

A number of problems with this vision of socialism rapidly emerge. In the chapter on Venezuela, Raby describes the work of the ‘missions’ dealing with problems of health, literacy and so on. These are not simply social programmes, but include important elements of participation by local communities. However, there are limits to the extent of this democratisation: ‘It is precisely at the level of more formal political structures that popular participation falls off, and this remains one of the weaknesses of the Bolivarian Revolution’ (p192).

This is quite a serious weakness. Chavez himself frequently bemoans the existence within the Venezuelan state of an ‘old bureaucracy’, a hangover from the previous elites who ruled the country, and a ‘new bureaucracy’ composed of Chavistas who want to limit change. Raby does not deal with the continued power held by this state machine which, although increasingly fragmented and disorganised, is still essentially a hierarchical body designed to ensure the smooth functioning of capitalism and the rule of an elite. At times Raby seems to suggest that Chavez’s direct relationship with the Venezuelan masses is enough to bypass the state altogether, and at others she seems to suggest that the whole state supports the process of transformation.

A second issue in Venezuela is the continued existence of a capitalist elite: ‘Capitalists may still be able to make handsome profits, but they do so under conditions dictated by the Venezuelan state and not just as they please,’ writes Raby (p195). Currently Venezuela’s old elite is enjoying an unprecedented boom time, reflected, for example, in vast sales of luxury cars. The same oil income that fuels the missions also allows the rich to line their pockets. So the oil boom can, for a time, soften class tensions, especially given the nervousness of an elite that has suffered major setbacks when it has tried to topple Chavez. But I find Raby’s confidence that this question can be postponed indefinitely, while socialism spreads through the globe, overly optimistic.

One way in which the problems could be resolved is if the struggle from below, which has helped keep Chavez in power so far, begins to create new organs of workers’ power. This could form the basis for an alternative kind of state—a workers’ state. The idea is briefly considered by Raby. Mass working class power, forged from below, was seen in the Paris Commune of 1871 and ‘it would appear in the Russian soviets of 1905 and 1917 and would continue for two to three years after the Bolshevik Revolution, only to be stifled under the pressures of civil war and foreign invasion and the centralism imposed by the party’ (p31). It would seem that understanding how Russia went from being the world’s greatest experiment in mass democracy to a Stalinist dictatorship, which Raby rightly rejects as a model, is quite important. Unfortunately, she dismisses the two key theorists who could help make sense of this.

The ‘Trotskyist thesis of the impossibility of “socialism in one country” is dangerously misleading’, Raby argues (p65). Socialism in one country is possible, she claims, as long as it proceeds slowly, for example maintaining a ‘socio-economic system’ that is ‘still predominantly capitalist’. The complicated holding operation she envisages leaves the question of state power and the transition to socialism unresolved until some point in the future when a second, unspecified, stage occurs. This is not so much ‘skinning a tiger claw by claw’ as plucking its individual hairs while a hoard of other tigers look on hungrily. The danger of progress being rolled back—by external aggression, the return to power of the old elite either by force or fraud, or the emergence of a Stalinist-style bureaucracy—seems extremely great.

Raby also explicitly rejects the theory of state capitalism, developed by Tony Cliff (here inaccurately referred to as ‘the founder of the International Marxist Tendency’), which could help explain what went wrong in Russia. I don’t believe Raby has really examined this theory. For example, she claims to reject it on the grounds that the Soviet Union’s economy was not shaped by its ‘external economic relations’. But for Cliff it was military competition with the West, not trade, that enforced capitalist accumulation in Russia. This is not merely a dogmatic question. The central reason why Cliff developed his theory was to defend what he saw as the core of Marxism—that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. While in Russia the successful revolution had been followed by Stalinist counter-revolution, the state capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere were installed without workers’ revolutions, often imposed by military might. They were never socialist or democratic regimes.

This is highly relevant for Raby’s other case study, that of Cuba. Here Raby points out that the exodus of the island’s capitalists to Florida and the hostility of the US in the wake of the 1959 revolution helped push Fidel Castro into the Communist camp. Raby charts Castro’s miraculous conversion from his position in the wake of the revolution: ‘I want to make it clear now that I am not a Communist’ (22 January 1959) to his revelation: ‘I am a Marxist-Leninist and will remain so until the end of my days’ (2 December 1961). But this retrospectively Communist seizure of power makes a mockery of the notion that Communism is, as Marx argued, the ‘self-conscious movement of the immense majority’.

Raby claims there was mass participation in the revolution: ‘Some Trotskyists and other leftist writers, while expressing admiration for the Cuban Revolution, lament what they describe as a lack of working class or popular involvement or initiative, implying that everything was done by fiat of Fidel and a few other comandantes. Nothing could be further from the truth: despite the crucial leadership role of Fidel and the M26-7 [Castro’s guerrilla army] commanders, there was enormous mass mobilisation throughout the country. The hundreds of thousands, even millions, who came to listen to Fidel’s speeches did so spontaneously, and they came not only to listen but to shout and to answer back and to give their opinions’ (p99). The popularity of the revolution is not in question, but Raby makes a serious mistake when she confuses popular acclaim with revolutionary self-emancipation.

The lack of self-activity in the revolution itself, which was carried through by a few hundred guerillas, has implications for the kind of democracy that flows from the revolution. Because there were no organs of workers’ power, Castro substituted the highly centralised and authoritarian guerrilla command structure. Raby, with typical honesty, gives a detailed account of how Cuban democracy actually functions. Elected municipal delegates are responsible for ‘all local affairs’ but only within ‘parameters laid down at national level’ (p124). How are these parameters determined? Through the election of a national assembly, elected with one candidate for each position. ‘The election is more like a popular ratification of a pre-selected list of candidates’ (p127). Real power is held by a ruling Council of State, its decisions ratified by the assembly, which meets only twice a year and always votes unanimously. Raby concludes, ‘At national level there is little doubt that basic policy is decided by the Communist Party leadership’ (p129).

This is a book intimately concerned with democracy, which rightly lambasts Western liberal democracy. But it is hard to see how Cuba has an ‘essentially democratic character’ which goes beyond parliamentary democracy. Raby also defends a peculiar kind of radical populism that seems to preclude the need for revolutionary democracy. In one of the weakest sections of the book, she argues that after the revolution ‘the greatest inspiration for thousands of militants throughout the country was the charisma and political genius of Fidel’ (p112). ‘The people felt their deepest desires were interpreted by Fidel,’ so, ‘democracy—the power of the people—meant the absolute power of the movement which had overthrown Batista’s tyranny and which expressed popular hopes and dreams after decades of frustration’ (p113).

Raby wants to extend this formula to Venezuela. Here ‘the Venezuelan people acquired a collective identity and were constituted as a political subject through the actions of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian movement’ (p233). The connection between a ‘charismatic leader’ and ‘the people’ is key to Raby’s notion of a revolutionary process. Raby does not seem to acknowledge any unevenness or tensions between ‘the people’, composed of different classes with different interests and modes of struggle. Even within the working class there will be different strategies—and a battle for ideas within the revolutionary process.

These weaknesses come out in an interesting discussion of Salvador Allende’s Chilean government, overthrown in 1973 by the coup led by Augusto Pinochet. Raby quite rightly points to ‘elements of popular power developing in the callampas [shanty towns] and working class areas around Santiago and other main cities’ (p202). In particular the workers’ ‘cordones industriales’ and ‘comandos comunales’ provided real examples of the kind of organs of democratic control that emerge in revolutionary processes. ‘But neither UP [Allende’s Popular Unity] n or Allende personally chose to encourage this popular revolutionary energy,’ writes Raby (p203).

It is as if the process comes crashing down because of the ‘decidedly uncharismatic’ Allende. But the possibility existed of turning these workers’ organs into an alternative workers’ state, built from below. That would have required a mass revolutionary organisation, rooted in the day to day struggles of the working class, its members trusted as leaders, coordinated nationally and capable of drawing together the different sectional struggles. Raby rejects the idea of a ‘self-proclaimed’ vanguard party, but in doing so she also rejects the real Leninist tradition, one that is based on providing rather than assuming leadership.

While Raby makes a sophisticated attempt to engage with the movements in Latin America, Tariq Ali’s book, Pirates of the Caribbean, seems far more superficial. The tone is set with a silly, geographically inaccurate title. The first two chapters are a dull read and seem largely concerned with lashing out at various figures from Ali’s past who have deserted the cause of socialism. However, the author’s literary flair is more apparent in the later chapters on Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. In the first two cases, Ali provides engaging historical accounts of the rise of Chavez and Bolivia’s president Evo Morales. But while Raby paints Chavez as a kind of unconscious populist revolutionary, Ali tends to paint him as a traditional social democrat.

He writes of Venezuela: ‘democratic and republican institutions will have to be rebuilt, strengthened and developed as a real alternative to neoliberal democracy, while simultaneously continent-wide structures need to be created as an alternative to the networks of the Northern global market and corruption consistently challenged’ (p76). Ali offers no serious account of the class struggles that have fuelled the revolutionary process, the tensions within the state or the challenges that lie ahead.

Similarly the chapter on Bolivia ends with the election of Morales in December 2005, seen as the logical result of the waves of mass struggle. Ali suggests that ‘what is being proposed in Bolivia is…a form of radical social democracy’ (p96). Again there is no serious analysis of two periods, in 2003 and 2005, when mass popular assemblies, especially in the huge indigenous city of El Alto, posed the possibility of the emergence of a revolutionary democracy. The 2005 wave of struggle, arguably the high tide of anti-capitalist struggle in the past two decades, is not even mentioned.

The chapter on Cuba breaks with the historical presentation used in the previous two cases. Ali instead presents a diary of his recent trip to the island—which I was surprised to read was his first visit. The format means he does not consider the rise of Castro or the nature of the Cuban Revolution, but he does make some interesting, critical comments.

He writes, ‘I have always been of the view that revolutions can enhance democracy in a way that is (especially in today’s world) forbidden in the capitalist world. Public debate, criticism, the exchange of conflicting opinions will strengthen Cuba and empower and arm its citizens, already among the best educated in the world. This is now a political necessity and should not be indefinitely delayed’ (p121).

Build it Now, by Caracas-based Marxist Michael Lebowitz, is a more satisfying read. It brings together seven brief, accessible essays. While it lacks the level of detail in Raby’s book, it would be a good work to recommend to someone inspired by developments in Venezuela to find out more about socialism. It begins with an admirably lucid summary of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and works through ever more concrete discussions of the problems of socialism and democracy. It ends with an extremely concrete chapter on Venezuela today.

Lebowitz’s Marxism is based on the concept of human needs. ‘Look to what working people are doing, Marx argued. Through their own struggles to satisfy their needs (which, for Marx, reflect all aspects of their existence as human beings within society and nature), they reveal that the battle for a new society is conducted by struggling within capitalism rather than looking outside. In those struggles workers come to recognise their common interests, they come to understand the necessity to join together against capital’ (p58).

Lebowitz’s clear emphasis on ‘socialism from below’ immediately marks his work out as an advance from those of Raby and Ali. ‘Socialism is not populism,’ he argues. ‘A society in which people look to the state to provide them with resources and with the answers to all their problems does not foster the development of human capacities’ (p71). He is keenly aware of the different phases of mass struggle that have shaped events in Venezuela and also of the tensions within the state. He warns of those ‘Chavist leaders’ who wish to create ‘Chavez without socialism’. He also raises important arguments about the limits of workers’ control, particularly within what most of those in the government regard as ‘strategic industries’.

At times Lebowitz seems to overstate the extent to which workers’ co-management of industry and the formation of co-operatives can break with the logic of capitalism. There is a danger of seeing the political formation of a workers’ state as an end result of a sweeping economic transformation within capitalism through the formation of a ‘non-capitalist sector’. The potential to do this within a capitalist society, presided over by a capitalist state, is limited. Workers’ organisation has to be focused far more on political tasks, forging a democratic workers’ state from below, rather than attempting to run industry in a non-capitalist way.

A second weakness, linked to this, is over the question of state power. At one point Lebowitz draws on Marx’s writings on the 1871 Paris Commune, arguing that the working class cannot simply use ‘the ready-made state machinery for its own purposes’ (p69) and arguing for a workers’ state built from below. At other times he seems to argue that it is possible to take control of the state: ‘The first step in Venezuela was to gain control of the existing state…that state is now being used to create the basis for new productive relations’ (p110). I suspect that Lebowitz distinguishes between the Venezuelan state as it exists under Chavez, and a workers’ state that could replace it, but this could have been clarified.

These concerns aside, Lebowitz puts forward powerful arguments. In particular he highlights the kind of institutions, the new Communal Councils along with organisation in workplaces, that could begin to create a new political power from below. He is also aware of the need for a ‘political instrument that can bring together those fighting for protagonistic democracy in the workplace and the community’ (p115). And whatever the debates provoked by the unfolding process, it is far better to have a world in which movements make these strategic questions of burning importance. Lebowitz’s call for, ‘Two, Three, Many Bolivarian Revolutions!’ is spot on.