Where is Venezuela going?

Issue: 156

Andy Brown

A profound economic, political and institutional crisis is sweeping Venezuela. The economy is suffering a deep recession triggered most of all by the collapse of the international price of oil, which accounts for something like 95 percent of the country’s export earnings. The regime of Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chávez after his death in 2013, is facing a sustained and violent campaign of destabilisation at the hands of the domestic right, energetically backed by the international media and imperialist interests. The popular movement which offered so much excitement and so many hopes in the Chávez years seems at best to be on the defensive and at worst to have atrophied. Unable to find solutions to the economic or political situation, the Maduro government seems to be stuck in a vicious downward spiral, while the working population suffers an appalling situation of deprivation. In the wings, Donald Trump’s administration, the right and its arrogant supporters are awaiting the moment when they can announce the definitive failure of the project for socialism in the 21st century in Latin America. This article sets this situation in context and seeks to offer an analysis of what has happened in Venezuela, as well as map an appropriate response for revolutionary socialists to current events.1

At the turn of the century, Latin America saw a crisis of neoliberalism that led to an inspiring rise in popular mobilisations.2 For a while, it was arguably the key battleground in the world against neoliberalism. In many countries the Washington consensus was challenged by workers, peasants, landless people and indigenous organisations.3 A reflection of this was the election of several more or less left wing governments, a process which became known as the “Pink Tide”. The nature of these governments varied greatly, from the mildly social democratic or frankly neoliberal-lite to the much more significantly radical (in their initial stages and rhetoric at least). The governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and above all the Chávez regime, in office in Venezuela from 1998, were the most important.

The situation of the Pink Tide governments was heavily dependent on a boom in commodity prices on the world market, driven most importantly by expanding demand in the Chinese economy. In South America these commodities were oil and gas, mining products and agro-industrial produce. This enabled the left governments to use the increased earnings from commodity production, foreign direct investment and the accumulation of reserves for redistributive programmes and welfare initiatives. These undoubtedly brought real material benefits to the poor and reduced inequality. Uruguayan economist Eduardo Gudynas calls this the “compensatory state”.4 At the same time both multinational and domestic businesses were able to sustain profits. The compensatory states did not challenge either private property rights or the dynamic of capitalist accumulation. David Harvey points out that, in contradiction to its compensatory nature, this economic model based on extraction has meant “accumulation by dispossession”5 and that the state has at times played a repressive role on behalf of capital and attacked and denigrated indigenous communities.

The economic situation has changed.6 The world recession of 2007-8 onwards came slowly to South America, but by 2012 the imperatives of austerity were being imposed. Export earnings dropped, as did foreign direct investment (especially in mining). Commodity prices, above all for oil, but also for metals and agricultural products, have reduced catastrophically. Left governments began to take decisions on a class basis and those worst affected were not the rich, but the poor. At the same time, the right has gone onto the offensive both in parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics. Austerity policies have both harmed and alienated many of the popular movements which had benefitted from and mobilised to defend the left governments.

This doesn’t mean that it’s all over and that we will see an inevitable return to right wing governments; the situation is fluid and the left and the popular movements will not readily surrender to the demands of capital. Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly true that the Pink Tide governments are under severe pressure, not to say in crisis.

The relationship between the active social movements and the left governments was always equivocal. The election of the Pink Tide regimes reflected the massive levels of struggle, but did not embody them. In the early years of the century a move towards parliamentary politics tended to have a demobilising effect leading to what Jeff Webber calls “a moderation of strategic horizons”.7 While popular approval ratings for the left governments were high during the commodity boom, these have now fallen.8 Above all this is the result of a worsening economic situation, but it is also a reaction against anti-popular and repressive measures taken by the left governments against the working class and the poor, especially indigenous people who offer resistance to the extractive model in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.9

For a theoretical framework in order to make sense of this, several commentators have used Antonio Gramsci’s idea of passive revolution to analyse this process of reform, redistribution, containment and class conservatism. In this model capitalism develops with a combination of revolutionary/transformative and conservative/restorative tendencies playing against each other to result in a reshaped capitalist order.10 The old order is not completely restored, but neither is there a revolutionary change. Adam David Morton says that in this model a “revolutionary form of political transformation is pressed into a conservative project of restoration”.11

Massimo Modonesi, a Mexican-Italian Marxist analyst, uses this idea to offer a five-point model to describe the Pink Tide governments in general:

  • They promote a development model oscillating between substantial reform and modest conservatism on an essentially neoliberal framework.
  • Change is carried out by sections of the dominant classes and the state from above, sometimes incorporating some of the popular forces which rose up against neoliberalism. The limits of change are set strictly by the bourgeois state and law.
  • Popular movements have been absorbed, co-opted or sometimes repressed by conservative forces now occupying the state apparatus and their political projects. This has often been achieved through redistributive and clientistic arrangements.
  • New political configurations which assumed government power have taken advantage of demobilisation or pacification to gain much more control of the popular movement.
  • Reliance on a charismatic leader has often reinforced the pacifying and delegative aspects of passive revolution.12

  • Luis Tapia, a leading left wing critic of the Bolivian government, has applied a similar model specifically to the Morales adminstration.13 Jeffrey Webber neatly summarises the case made:

    This totality encompasses a series of important but strictly limited structural transformations of Latin American societies under left rule, which have, however, taken on conservative overtones, and have with time been catalysed increasingly from above, relying ever more on demobilising and subordinating subaltern political practices from below. These processes have emptied out, from top to bottom, channels of popular organisation, participation and protagonism that has been developed and refined during the extra-parliamentary cycle of revolt in the early years of the present century.14

    However, the use of the concept of passive revolution is contested. Alex Callinicos has suggested (with reference to earlier attempts to use it) that there has been “an over-extension of the concept of passive revolution in recent writing on international political economy”. He argues that in both Gramsci’s own writings and in various attempts to apply them to 20th and 21st century political developments, “the concept has now been stretched to a point at which it threatens to break”.15

    Webber suggests that the model doesn’t pay enough attention to patterns of capitalist accumulation—that it focuses too much on the political and ideological superstructure and not enough on the economic base. He argues that the political developments are best understood in relation to the “disciplinary exigencies of capital accumulation” and therefore pays more attention to the way that capitalist accumulation has developed (or sometimes not developed) and on class formation under the Pink Tide governments, focusing specifically on Bolivia. In a close and wide-ranging study,16 he examines extractive distribution, diversification of industry and the labour market to discover “disquieting new forms of class rule and domination [which] have been easy to downplay or ignore altogether”.

    Let us now consider how Venezuela fits into this general analysis and how we can understand the profound crisis that the Maduro government is in. The first thing to say is that redistribution was accompanied by both an extremely high level of popular consciousness and mobilisation and also intense opposition from the right. In particular, there were three key battles. First came the attempted coup against Chávez in 2002, thwarted by the resistance of the Caracas barrios on the streets. Then there was the forced shutdown of the oil industry in 2003 by the bosses and the corrupt union bureaucrats, stopped by the rank and file oil workers and their working class allies. Third, there was the 2004 recall referendum attempt to oust Chávez, repulsed again by a clear democratic mandate for him expressed amid militant mass mobilisation. These were the high points of the Bolivarian process, when the working class across all its different forms fought the right and the bosses to a standstill.17

    They were also the high points of creative response in the realm of nascent forms of popular power and genuine participation. These could be seen, for example, in the activist Bolivarian circles, the emergence of communes and communal councils,18 the formation of an independent workers’ organisation in the UNT union federation and the debates about workers’ control in the Sidor steel plant and elsewhere in industry.19 However, these participatory bodies increasingly became integrated into the Bolivarian state machine, compromised, corrupted and shorn of any real ability to influence change.

    The PSUV, the Venezuelan United Socialist Party (proclaimed by Chávez in 2006 and including almost all the Venezuelan revolutionaries) never became a party of mass participation and power from below exercised by working people on “their” government.20 It was always strongly orientated on mobilisations around elections, with Chávez coming out on top in no less than 14 of these, 13 of them decisively. Nor was there any suggestion of dual power in the sense of the emergence of an alternative organ or organs of workers’ power parallel to and distinct from the capitalist state, though some have argued that this is what the constant debate at the grassroots amounted to.21 Rather, the party, modelled on the Cuban Communist Party, became an apparatus for the transmission of plans and orders from above and a vehicle of promotion and removal from the base for a handful.

    Real change did come in Venezuela for the poor—in cash income, access to health and education, literacy, housing and access to better and more secure employment. But as the price of the oil fell, it became clear that the previous possibility of both improvement for the poor and profitability for the bosses could not continue. Inflation is effectively out of control. In 2016 the central bank estimated inflation at 274 percent and independent analyst Ecoanalitica 525 percent. Maduro increased the minimum wage by 454 percent to keep up with inflation. Estimates now are around 800 percent. Inevitably this means that the living standards of ordinary Venezuelans have fallen beyond recognition. There are chronic shortages of goods, an issue now said to be the top concern of 80 percent of Venezuelans. For many Venezuelans, it has become impossible to put food on the table. An estimate by the teachers’ union suggests that it now takes 17 minimum wage jobs to pay for the basket of basic goods and services.22 Imported goods are a particularly controversial area. These have been a playground for smuggling, hoarding, speculation and outright theft with money laundered into the accounts of the rich. Dollars are available at official, subsidised rates for businesses to buy goods abroad. There are myriad stories of massive swindling and it is clearly a tactic of the right to buy up and hoard crucial supplies to worsen the economic crisis. Unfortunately the perpetrators and beneficiaries of these methods include corrupt public officials, who both conduct their own transactions and take bribes on private ones. In total some 60 percent of import transactions are reckoned to be fraudulent. The missions (as the Chavista state welfare projects are called) have been undermined, especially in health, where drugs and treatment are often simply unavailable, and in housing.23 In sum, Venezuela has come up against what Webber describes as the objective limits of the Bolivarian process within the framework of capitalist accumulation and the country’s insertion in the world market. Michael Roberts’s recent ­statistical survey of the Venezuelan economy reveals this in all its starkness.24

    Chávez’s own final analysis, laid out just before he died, called for: “The radical suppression of the logic of capital and a continuing transition to socialism. For new forms of planning and production for the benefit of the people to emerge requires pulverising the bourgeois form of the state that is still reproducing itself through its abominable old practices”.25 Such a project has not moved forward under Maduro. What investment there has been in oil has been in joint deals with multinationals such as Repsol, Gazprom and Chevron. State-owned industries in other sectors suffer from prolonged lack of investment and prestige production projects such as sugar refining have never begun. The diversification into other sectors to counter the effects of the reliance on oil has not happened. Agriculture has not developed and the promised redistribution of land from the big landowners has stalled or even been reversed. The consequence of a lack of long-term planning is inefficiency and above all corruption.26

    The beneficiaries of the economic crisis are not simply the private companies and individuals who steal, hoard, speculate, launder money and export the country’s wealth to tax havens and free trade areas abroad. They also include the boliburguesia (the Bolivarian ruling class), as Venezuelans call them, who have grown up around Chavismo and who are beyond effective political control and not accountable in any way to the Venezuelan people. George Ciccariello-Maher describes this process as a “class struggle within Chavismo”.27 These layers include large parts of the armed forces command, which controls key sectors of the economy and provides the majority of the cabinet and of state governors.28 Roberts gives details of a wide range of army-controlled companies in key sectors of the economy as well as economic privileges extended to the armed forces.29 Many military figures have become phenomenally rich and powerful in the Chavista state machine. This state, clearly capitalist in nature as Chávez himself identified, has grown in size and power. It has doubled the number of ministries and quadrupled the number of vice-ministers, providing ample opportunities for nepotism.

    Class choices have been made. The reaction of the Maduro regime has generally been to compromise with the right, both economically and politically, necessarily weakening the economic position and the political mobilisation of the poor. The Chavista right, the bureaucrats and officers made a political choice. Mike Gonzalez sums up the current situation:

    In 2002 the people were the subject of their own history, but today that role has been appropriated by a corrupt and cynical bureaucratic class, now interwoven with elements of the military, which uses its position for its own benefit and at the expense of the Venezuelan Revolution.30

    The Venezuelan right has continually mobilised violent opposition to the Maduro regime since 2013. But it is important to emphasise that virulent right wing opposition is not new. The fact is that at no point did they accept the legitimacy of the Chavista government, no matter how many times Chávez or his party won democratic mandates in elections and referendums. There was very little retribution towards those who flagrantly defied the democratic decisions of Venezuelans, even including the staging of a coup which released massive repression resulting in the pursuit and murder of dozens of Chavista supporters. Even now, the measures taken against those who pursue calculated violence and routinely kill Chavistas (particularly dark skinned ones) are relatively lenient. Maduro’s government seems to believe that the insurgent right is split between those who respect democracy in some way and those who immediately resort to street violence, vandalism of state resources, assassination and outright robbery. The problem is that this is not the case. The different tendencies of the right have more in common than separates them. Both are led, organised and of course financed by the richest families in Venezuela, with considerable assistance from abroad.31 Both have no concern whatsoever for the mass of Venezuela’s population. Both lack a commitment to democratic methods and would be more than happy to collaborate in or orchestrate a coup—and have indeed done so in the past. Both tendencies are implicated in extreme violence. They have links with and are using paramilitary forces associated with both drug gangs and Colombian paramilitaries with a record of ruthless violence against both the poor and the organised left.32

    The right are deeply racist. Their view of Venezuelan society is derived from a mixture of class interests and a racialised hatred of the poor. The elite, both in terms of their leadership and their activists on the ground, are drawn from Spanish-descended families who regard themselves as innately superior and entitled to rule. They speak of the barrio dwellers and peasants in the crudest racist terms, often advocating violence against them to put them back in what the elite regards as their rightful, subordinate place.33

    The different groups on the right include (for now) parliamentary politicians like Henrique Capriles, middle class student shock troops, coup plotters or ultra-right insurrectionists like Leopoldo López or María Corina Machado. For some, military intervention may be the preferred option, perhaps using the majority in Congress they acquired in 2015 as the lever. But the aim of all the factions is the same: to roll back the gains of the last two decades for the working class and to reimpose the unchallenged rule of an authoritarian ruling class. Venezuelan Marxist economist Manuel Sutherland hit the nail right on the head: “In sum, Chavismo [under Maduro] dreams of a reasonable and loving capitalist who obviously does not exist. With him it wants to negotiate, even though the normal action of these capitalists, that is to say the process of the accumulation of capital, is the cause of the country’s misery”.34 The routine business of making very large profits was barely touched under Chávez. The private sector and indeed international capital was granted generally very favourable terms, which accounts for the difference between a gung ho and deeply hostile White House and a comfortable, calm and calculating Wall Street content to quietly pursue business with Venezuela under Chávez. Similarly now there have been very few moves made against those profiteering, hoarding, swindling and squeezing those at the bottom of society. The Maduro government has been very conciliatory towards private capital. In a particularly disturbing example, in May 2016 it signed 150 concessions with foreign oil and mining companies to allow the exploitation of Venezuela’s Amazon region, the Arco Minero project. This is likely to cause massive environmental damage and the dispossession of indigenous people whose rights were specifically protected under the Bolivarian constitution.35 A private company will administer the resources, under the control of the Ministry of Defence as Maduro has placed the region under military control. A further objective of the right is likely to be the privatisation of at least some of the state oil company PDVSA. The attempts at compromise on economic policy have offered no solution to the crisis, but at the same time have weakened the economic and political position of the Venezuelan working class.

    Unsurprisingly, Venezuela has found very little international support among world leaders. The opposition receives millions of dollars in funding from abroad. In 2013 the United States issued 103 hostile proclamations about Venezuela. In the first three months of 2015 there were 170. The Barack Obama administration declared Venezuela “an extraordinary threat to US national security”. This can only be the case in the wildest fantasies of State Department or CIA hardliners, but it left the way open for US economic sanctions against Venezuela and against a number of individuals. On Chávez’s death, Obama noted that “the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law and respect for human rights”, the implication being that these are all absent in Venezuela.36 The Trump administration has duly weighed in with its own stream of vitriolic threats and expressions of support for the Venezuelan right, extending sanctions against the Maduro government. In August Trump said: “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary”. It is unlikely that the State Department feels a boots on the ground intervention would be appropriate and many supporters of the Venezuelan right think such an intervention would strengthen support for Maduro, but it is hard to be sure that Trump would not go ahead with such a course. The European Union takes a similarly hostile position to the Maduro government. Neighbouring governments have also explicitly taken up the cause of the right opposition under Maduro, which they did not generally do in previous attacks on Chávez, often through the Organisation of American States. The statements of its leadership now completely concur with those of the White House and the State Department.37 Some go as far as to suggest foreign military intervention.

    Undoubtedly it is true that the Bolivarian process in Venezuela is under sustained attack from imperialism. How could it be otherwise? However, this cannot be an excuse for failing to analyse the problems and mistakes of Chavismo or of other Pink Tide governments. As Webber puts it:

    A serious and balanced assessment of the limitations of the period of progressive governments, and the cycle of social movement revolt that preceded them and made them possible, cannot therefore be restricted to unidimensional criticism of US intervention and belligerent rights, even when these are critical components of the story.38

    Similarly, the reaction of the international press to both Chávez and Maduro has at times been frankly hysterical. Webber correctly notes that:

    There’s something about Chávez that encourages a starker than usual embrace of mediocrity in the supporters of the establishment press…whose dystopic fantasies about the life and times of Venezuela since 1999 have found their unmitigated expression in the pages of the Guardian, New York Times and New Statesman, among others.39

    This has been even more obvious in the pages of the mainstream establishment press in the Spanish state, where El Pais has led the charge, and in the United States. Private TV channels—which still have an estimated 70 percent share of the audience for news in Venezuela, despite the claims of the right—and others based in Colombia and the US have run a long-lasting campaign in support of the right. There has been a consistent online and Twitter campaign, with scant regard for the facts of the case. One particularly celebrated instance was the broadcasting of scenes of violent attacks by riot police on protesters—the only flaw being that the footage is actually from Egypt rather than Venezuela.40 An endless stream of misrepresentation, stereotypes, half-truths, exaggerations and downright lies have been deployed to denigrate Chávez (especially), Chavismo, Maduro and the very idea that there is a political alternative to neoliberal economics and the political domination of ruling class interests. Of course, the mainstream media also make widespread use of the crisis in Venezuela to drive their own domestic agenda. In the Spanish state, for example, the fact that the key leaders of Podemos had been in the Pink Tide countries and derived some of their political ideas from them has been frequently used by the right to denigrate them in the last two election campaigns. In Britain, Venezuela suddenly returned to the headlines recently. The principal objective was not to provide any understanding of the complex situation, but rather as a ready means of attacking Jeremy Corbyn on a personal basis and, more important, to suggest that any project of progressive change is both dangerous in itself and doomed to failure.

    The way to deal with the crisis of both the Venezuelan economy and the political offensive of the right could only be to resolve it decisively in the interests of labour, which by definition can only be done in current circumstances at the expense of capital. The majority of the Venezuelan population and certainly of the working class retains its loyalty to the process which undoubtedly brought it benefits. It also retains its deep hostility to the right and knows what it can expect from them if they ever achieve the solution they want. The slogan “nunca volverán” (They’re never coming back) remains a popular one. Ciccariello-Maher comments that “despite bearing the brunt of insecurity and shortages, poor Chavistas and non-Chavistas alike were unwilling to lend their support to what many view as an anti-democratic movement that sought to overthrow a government elected by the majority”.41 Loyalty to a corrupt and vacillating government is no longer guaranteed, however. This is evidenced not so much by the right gaining more support as by the fact that voters and marchers do not turn out to support the PSUV project in the numbers they once did. In December 2015 when the right won a two thirds majority in parliamentary elections, they gained around 300,000 votes. Much more significant was the decline in the Chavista vote by around two million through abstentions and spoiled votes.42 The much reported street protests remain largely confined to the middle and upper class areas whose mayors belong to the right wing opposition, though with more exceptions now than when they began in 2014 and with some evidence that they are spreading to previously Chavista areas.43

    There are still many activists in Venezuela committed to the building of popular power. Popular forces do not forget the lessons they have learnt in periods of heightened class struggle and they do not meekly surrender the gains they have made. Raúl Zibechi, a Uruguayan writer and activist, puts it like this:

    We aren’t back in the 1990s of liberalisation and privatisation because those at the base of society are in a different situation: more organised, with more self-esteem and more knowledge of the economic model they suffer under. Above all, they have a greater capacity to take on the powerful. Collective experiences don’t happen in vain. They leave a footprint and knowledge and a way of operating which in a new stage will play a decisive role in the necessary resistance to the new right.44

    A fierce critique of the rightward moves, corruption and compromise has come from the left. The question is whether they can lead a movement which can reassert its power over the state and defeat the right. This is the analysis of Marea Socialista, a left current originally inside the PSUV, which broke from it in 2015:

    We are facing the classic counter-revolutionary schema. It consists of applying pressure on the government to implement anti-popular measures and in so doing to lose its social base, deepen its exhausted image in front of the Bolivarian people. As a result, they will be more open to the ousting of the government, whether that ousting is violent or soft.45

    Marea Socialista have called for a move from a defensive economic strategy to an offensive one. They have demanded greater state control of external commerce and essential imports as well as currency, intervention in the banking system, increased state production of basic subsistence products and the expropriation of the largest operations involved in hoarding, speculation and compromise. In a remarkably similar list, Michael Roberts suggests that in order to make any sort of headway against the economic crisis these steps need to be taken: “the state monopoly of foreign trade, the expropriation of food production and distribution, default on foreign debt, expropriation of the banks and big businesses and a national democratic plan of production”. He also stresses that even this would not be enough without other governments in Latin America also being prepared to adopt such measures.46

    There is no sign of anything like this being contemplated by Maduro’s government at present, and of course there would be no point in it if it did not also include a widening of political participation and mobilisation, as any such measures would heighten the sense of class confrontation and no doubt ramp up the domestic and international campaign of the right. This isn’t the direction in which Chavismo has gone in recent years. Bureaucratisation has gone alongside an extraordinary level of corruption among leading Chavistas. There has been a much greater role for the army in the government at the expense of the influence of the grassroots. This has led to what Roland Denis describes as the substitution of social control with technocratic and bureaucratic functionaries.47 This is what has to be reversed and blown open if the essence of Chávez’s dream of participatory socialism is to be realised. It isn’t just defeating the right that matters, but also how the right is defeated. A successful defence of the gains of the Chávez period would require a return to the days of mass mobilisation seen over a decade ago. This would have to be predicated on an honest accounting over what has gone wrong in the PSUV and the Bolivarian state and a wholesale clearout of the corrupt layers of the party and the state bureaucracy.

    In recent months the Maduro government has seemed trapped in a downward spiral of crisis. Against the dire economic backdrop and with a state of emergency in place that effectively suspends constitutional guarantees, the right wing opposition has gone on a massive offensive, calling almost daily demonstrations designed to end in violent and telegenic, if not large-scale, clashes with the security forces. It is looking to make Venezuela ungovernable and bring down the government as the culmination of a long battle. With a large opposition majority in Congress, there have been a series of institutional and bureaucratic confrontations between the executive and judicial wings of the state controlled by the PSUV and the legislature controlled by the right. Disputes about the legal status of some opposition deputies turned into battles involving the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman and the National Assembly. Regional and trade union elections have been postponed.

    On 1 May Maduro proposed the election of a new Constituent Assembly elected partly geographically and partly by sector (workers, farmers, business, commerce, disabled people, indigenous people, etc). This would be authorised to revise the Bolivarian constitution, presumably in an attempt to challenge the National Assembly and break the deadlock.48 This proposal has become the particular focus of the most recent challenges to the government, with daily demonstrations, an opposition-mobilised anti Constituent Assembly referendum and a boycott of the official election, which went ahead at the end of July. The newly elected (Chavista) Constituent Assembly has now taken over the functions of the (right controlled) National Assembly. The constant mutual accusations—from the right that the Maduro government acts unconstitutionally and is a dictatorship, and from the PSUV that the right itself is ignoring constitutionality, and trying to destabilise the country and provoke a coup—continue to fly backwards and forwards as this article is written. There is no sign of an end to the situation.49

    There has been considerable debate among left wing analysts of the crisis in Venezuela, not so much about the degeneration of the PSUV or the fact that, as George Ciccariello-Maher puts it, “the ‘gains of Chavismo’ are indeed slipping away”,50 but rather about how to explain this and above all how to point to a way forward. Attacking Mike Gonzalez’s critical stance towards the Maduro government,51 Ciccariello-Maher argues that “however imperfectly, the Maduro government still stands for the possibility of something radically different”. He is optimistic about the chances of success for the Bolivarian left, quoting an organiser from a commune in Barquisimeto:

    The government is not the Bolivarian project, which goes far beyond the presidency—this is why they haven’t been able to defeat it and why it is still in the streets today. We need to continue to resist and to build a truly revolutionary option that can transform the very structure of the state…we also need to cleanse the government and the institutions, where there is too much corruption and bureaucracy. We have to wrest power away from the military. There are too many financial mafias—we need to eliminate the currency controls and nationalise banking and foreign exchange. The right will never be an option. We must be critical toward the government and build a true alternative capable of governing.52

    Ciccariello-Maher looks towards the resistance of grassroots organisations such as the communes in the cities and the countryside and the collectives, armed self-defence militias in the barrios. These, he argues, are “the bedrock of the revolution, have consistently attacked corruption, defended their local autonomy and pressured those in power to move more quickly towards socialism”.53 According to Ciccariello-Maher, a combination of these forces across Venezuela can resist the right wing onslaught and both defend the Bolivarian process on the ground and defy the elites in the PSUV. Using an analogy from C L R James’s analysis of the French Revolution comparing the Jacobins and the sans-culottes,54 he argues that:

    Hugo Chávez, a Jacobin by James’s definition, often acted with the people rather than for them, but his personality and proximity to power inevitably kept him at arm’s length from the grassroots. The revolution was never his to begin with: it preceded him, exceeded him, and today outlives him—because, like the sans-culottes, Venezuelan revolutionaries are dedicated to the slow and difficult construction of radically democratic and participatory socialist alternatives. This promise, however, is also a warning that Nicolás Maduro neglects at his own peril: it is not the Venezuelan Jacobins that will save the revolution, but the sans-culottes.

    Without doubt there exists a widespread and militant consciousness and mobilisation among popular organisations of all kinds across Venezuela, despite the degeneration of Chavismo and the PSUV. This produces a high level of resistance to both the vacillation and anti-popular practices of the Maduro government and even more so to the right. The question is whether this can develop into an organisation that can confront the capitalist state at a national level to drive forward the interests of the Venezuelan working class as a whole in the massively difficult circumstances in which it finds itself. This cannot be developed inside the PSUV, with its entrenched corruption and institutionalised commitment to command from above. Nor can it be done without tackling the key question of state power. What Ciccariello-Maher calls “a complex and dynamic interplay and mutual determination between the two: movements and the state”55 will have to be resolved such that it will be clear, in Webber’s phrase, “which social class comes out on top”.56 Webber quotes the French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd at length to make this point:

    It nonetheless remains an illusion to believe we can evade this difficulty by eliminating the question of political power…in favour of a rhetoric of “counter-powers”. Economic, millitary and cultural powers are perhaps more widely scattered, but they are also more concentrated than ever. You can pretend to ignore power, but it will not ignore you. You can act superior by refusing to take it, but from Catalonia 1937 to Chiapas, via Chile, experience shows right up to this very day that it will not hesitate to take you in the most brutal fashion. In a word, a strategy of counter-power only has any meaning in the perspective of dual power and its resolution. Who will come out on top?57

    This begs a further question which is often avoided, even by the best Marxist commentators on Latin America. If it is true that the question of state power cannot be avoided and at some point must be confronted in a key moment of rupture, then socialists must address the question of what form of political organisation is needed in order to do that successfully. The often lamentable history of aspirant revolutionary parties in the region cannot be allowed to justify ignoring the elephant in the room. Horizontalist perspectives which argue for changing the world without confronting the issue of state power have not, for all the widespread advocacy of them, been able to break either the dynamic of capitalist exploitation or the degeneration of apparently progressive regimes into new forms of domination. The question of concentrating the potential power and political consciousness of working people (however that term is understood) into an organisation capable of taking state power and overthrowing capitalism, starting on a national basis and expanding internationally, still has to be addressed. To this end, Marea Socialista issued an open letter to “critical Chavistas and the autonomous left” immediately after the Constituent Assembly election, which it denounced as a “colossal fraud against the Venezuelan people”. Entitled “It is time to forge a new emancipatory popular movement”, they argue for the formation of a new collective organisation, independent of the state, to take the struggle forward.58

    What seems clear at present, not only in Venezuela but in other Pink Tide countries, is that we are entering a period of greater economic, social and political instability. There will be less political consensus, more class conflict, deterioration in the living conditions of working people and possibly renewed interventionism by the US.59 The active, autonomous political elements of opposition to capitalism have changed, as has their relationship to the state, and they are largely in the process of development. Zibechi explains that they aren’t the same and they don’t have the same modes of operation as those who fought in the 1990s.60 Their capacity for autonomous and active participation, as Webber calls it, has to be rebuilt. Bensaïd calls a social revolution a process of “imposing an alternative logic to that of the accumulation of capital, capable of transcending the existing relations of production and opening up a new field of possibilities”.61 This is what has been lacking in the Bolivarian process in Venezuela. This is not to say that opportunities for, or possibilities of, social revolution didn’t ever exist. Nor is it to say that opportunities for working class advance have all been closed off. The point is that in key moments of heightened struggle, the transformative possibilities have either to expand and deepen, or they recede. Which direction they go in, for Venezuela and for other countries in Latin America, will decide what shapes the next phase of history.

    Socialists are not ambivalent on the question of what happens now in Venezuela. A victory for the Venezuelan right, be it through constitutional methods, a coup or insurrection would be a defeat for working people in Venezuela and the rest of the continent, a triumph for the most reactionary forces in the country and a victory for imperialism. The vision of a sneering Donald Trump heralding such an event is horrible indeed to contemplate. It would without doubt unleash a brutal and bloody backlash against all who have fought for a different Venezuela, at all levels of society. A terrible political and economic revenge would be visited on the Venezuelan population, with the return of the most naked and ruthless exploitation and the systematic destruction of all the gains of Chavismo and indeed of the labour movement and popular organisations of any sort. Every socialist should defend the Bolivarian process and the Venezuelan working class unconditionally and argue against the attacks made from the right on them. These attacks come from the rich who seek to prolong their privileges and their ability to oppress and exploit the working people of the continent, from the multinationals and the imperialists who seek to dominate the world and from their servants in the international press who proclaim that there is no alternative to capitalism and another world is not possible.

    But equally, we are not cheerleaders for this or that reformist or state sponsored project, for that is what Chavismo and the other Pink Tide governments have been. Socialists do not need to make what Webber calls “the analytical fumble of naming this a revolution”.62 The bounds of the market and the demands of capital accumulation have not been set aside. The capitalist state has not been challenged, much less replaced. There have been conflicts with working people and social movements in Venezuela and all the Pink Tide countries and state violence has been used against them. This is a rising trend. The mobilisation and self-organisation of the working class has not at all been a central feature of these regimes. On the contrary, the new elites have demobilised and demoralised popular organisations of all kinds. We are absolutely not uncritical of the Maduro government, or indeed of Chávez before him, or of the PSUV and its corruption, bureaucracy, inefficiency and lack of accountability. Rather we remain obliged to look to and support those who fight again and again to build the basis for a genuinely democratic and ultimately socialist society.

    Andy Brown is a member of the Socialist Workers Party based in Newham.


    1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Kevin Corr and Héctor Puente Sierra for comments on drafts of this article.

    2 Webber, 2017, p13.

    3 Gaudichaud, 2010; Modonesi and Rebón, 2011.

    4 Gudynas, 2012.

    5 Harvey, 2003.

    6 Webber, 2017, p23.

    7 Webber, 2017, p15.

    8 Webber, 2017, p19.

    9 Webber, 2017, chapters 3 and 4; Gonzalez, 2016.

    10 Webber, 2017, p162.

    11 Morton, 2007, p318.

    12 Modonesi, 2012.

    13 Tapia, 2011.

    14 Webber, 2017, p295.

    15 Callinicos, 2010.

    16 Webber, 2017, p169.

    17 Choonara, 2006, p14; Gonzalez, 2004. The term Bolivarian is a reference to 19th century Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar.

    18 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p17.

    19 International Socialism, 2006; Lebowitz, 2005; Ciccariello-Maher, 2013, chapters 7 and 9.

    20 Gonzalez, 2017.

    21 Ciccariello-Maher, 2013, p239; Webber, 2017, p246.

    22 Gonzalez, 2017.

    23 Gonzalez, 2016.

    24 Roberts, 2017.

    25 Quoted in Gonzalez, 2014.

    26 Gonzalez, 2016.

    27 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p42.

    28 Gonzalez, 2017.

    29 Roberts, 2017.

    30 Gonzalez, 2016.

    31 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p60.

    32 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, chapter 3, 2017.

    33 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p56.

    34 Quoted in Webber and Spronk, 2014.

    35 Gonzalez, 2017.

    36 Webber, 2017, p30

    37 Ellner, 2017.

    38 Webber, 2017, p275.

    39 Webber, 2017, p29.

    40 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p53.

    41 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p55.

    42 Gonzalez, 2016.

    43 Ellner, 2017; Gonzalez, 2017; Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p58.

    44 Zibechi, 2015.

    45 Webber and Spronk, 2014.

    46 Roberts, 2016.

    47 Denis, 2015.

    48 LUCHAS, 2017.

    49 For a detailed timeline see Al Jazeera, 2017.

    50 Ciccariello-Maher, 2017.

    51 Gonzalez, 2017.

    52 Ciccariello-Maher, 2017.

    53 Ciccariello-Maher, 2016, p68.

    54 James, 1989, p88.

    55 Ciccariello-Maher, 2013, p6.

    56 Webber, 2017, p248.

    57 Bensaïd, 2002.

    58 Marea Socialista, 2017.

    59 Webber, 2017, p280.

    60 Zibechi, 2015.

    61 Bensaïd, 2002, quoted in Webber, 2017, p250.

    62 Webber, 2017, p272.


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