Sunday, July 22, 2007

Peoples' Power in Venezuela?

An overexcited Socialist Worker/NZ has publicly disagreed with its sister organisations in declaring the Venezuelan revolution the "most important leap forward for the workers' cause since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution". It likens Chavez new party of socialist unity to Lenin's Bolshevik Party. CWG replies to this view of the Bolivarian revolution and argues for a different and revolutionary politics based on the conception of Chavez as a 'Bonapartist' figure balanced between the working masses and international capitalism whose regime has to be overthrown by a workers revolution to form a workers and peasants state.

The revolution is in the balance

While the political developments in Venezuela do have 'global significance' we see this as rather different from the SW/NZ or its sister organisations. The SW/NZ is caught up on a wave of enthusiasm on the left for '21st century socialism' that offers positive hope to workers all around the world in a period of crises, wars and genocides. [1] But as Alex Callinicos, on behalf of the ITC puts it, the centre of the struggle against imperialism is in the Middle East, especially the war and resistance in Iraq. Events in Venezuela, while very important, are in part the result of the US being bogged down in its 'war on terror' and unable to effectively intervene against Chavez. So while the SW/NZ wants to jump onto the new bandwagon of the 'socialist unity' party formed by President Chavez, its sister organisations are more cautious. For one, they disagree that there is a 'dual power' situation in Venezuela.[2] There is as yet no 'bottom up' independent workers power that is arrayed against the power of the bourgeois state. Nor is Chavez' new party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), a "mass socialist party". [3]

Yet, despite these differences over how far the revolution has gone, they all agree that the formation of the PSUV offers an opening for workers to move towards political independence and create genuine organs of workers power - soviets or workers councils and militias. In this they join forces with most of the ex-Trotskyist left like the Australian Green Left and the international Grant/Woods Tendency. They all characterisie the PSUV as a broad 'workers' party in which revolutionaries can enter and fight for a program of workers to power. To this end they say the UNT should join and lend its weight to a mass rank and file membership that can take advantage of Chavez' promise to hold democratic elections for delegates to found the party, and force a break from the Bolivarian state bureaucracy that wants to limit the revolution to a form of Venezuelan state capitalism.

But this assessment makes the fatal mistake of failing to see that the PSUV is a 'popular front party' where the state bureaucracy acts as the 'shadow' of the national bourgeoisie which is in an alliance with imperialist capitalism. More important, the PSUV is the ruling party of the state Bolivarian regime which includes Chavez Presidency. This regime we characterise as 'Bonapartist' following Trotsky's analysis of populist leaders in Latin America in the 1930s. A 'Bonaparte' is a bourgeois leader who balances between the main antagonistic classes in the name of national unity in order to contain the masses when the ruling class itself is too weak to destroy the popular movement. In this sense then, the PSUV is not a broad workers party but a popular front party created by Chavez to help contain the contradiction that he faces daily in balancing between the insurgent masses and international capital. The PSUV, then, is not on opening on the road to revolution, but rather a dead end that leads to the defeat of the revolution.

Here we argue that the popular front cannot work unless a treacherous fake left leadership seduces the workers into joining it on the bosses' terms. In doing so they tie the workers hands behind their backs and prepare to lead them to historic defeats. Whereas in the 1930s the Stalinists performed this role, today after the restoration of capitalism in all of the former degenerate workers states except Cuba and the DPRK, Castro plays an important role in seducing workers into the popular front. But this is insufficient, because the new layers of radicalised workers, peasants and youth can see that Cuba has long been following the path of the other former Stalinist states and is making its peace with capitalism. Therefore, to contain the most advanced layers of the workers who want to fight for socialism, the centrist Trotskyist groups have taken over the role of acting as the left wing of the popular front to lock workers into a political 'unity' with the bourgeoisie.

The Popular Front in Latin America

The crucial problem in Latin America is that, membership of ruling parties, and voting for ruling parties that are part of popular front governments, contains and ultimately betrays, the independent development of workers organisations. This is because in a popular front, workers parties are in a coalition with bourgeois parties so that the workers parties become subordinated to petty bourgeois or bourgeois parties by electoral agreements that are in the bosses' class interests.

If the unions and workers parties are inside these popular fronts, this has the effect of limiting their independent action. More than that it prevents them from organising as armed independent class forces to prepare for counter-revolution. Peron in Argentina built a system of state patronage that tied the unions via his party machine to his regime. This destroyed their independence and left them exposed to the dictatorship. This system still exists today with Kirchners' left Peronist regime incorporating the unemployed unions as the administrators of work schemes and the dole.

Lula did the same in Brazil. The unions and the workers party were forced to swallow Lula's agreement with his bourgeois partners and imperialism, leading to splits in his party and the formation of breakaway unions and the Party of Socialism and Freedom (PSOL) who are repeating the same failed strategy to build a party on the left wing of the popular front regime to push it to the left.

PSUV is a Popular Front Party

The situation is slightly different in Venezuela as Chavez' regime came first and built a union base and is now forming a united party to support it. But the result is the same. The united party will combine all classes in support of the bourgeois government and constitution. Chavez wants the UNT to join the PSUV. This will subordinate organised labour to the party of a popular front regime via a labor bureaucracy.

PSUV is not politically independent of the state. It will be the governing party after all. Moreover it is what Trotsky called a 'popular front party' comprising left bourgeois, petty bourgeois and working class elements. If the UNT joins the PSUV then it will not be independent of the state. It has since joined.

Fight for independent unions, independent armed workers councils (soviets) everywhere, and and an independent Marxist Party with a program to form a workers and peasants government and expropriate imperialist and capitalist property.

We need to understand the signficance of the PSUV as a popular front party. Its significance is that the popular organisations, AK47s and all, remain part of a political bloc dominated by the bourgeoisie, and so are hampered in forming politically independence class organs such as workers councils and workers militias. Many on the left don't understand that the bourgeoisie can be represented in a popular front by a very small section, even by a petty bourgeois party. They object that the national bourgeoisie in Venezuela is hostile to Chavez, so how can it be represented in the PSUV?

The Bourgeoisie or its "shadow"

However, a popular front (or popular front party) does not need to have a strong representation of the bourgeoisie, and certainly not the traditional bourgeoisie in Venezuela. The most famous popular front of all that of 1935 in France was a front between the Communists the Socialists and the Radicals. The Radicals were a party of the petty bourgeoisie and small capitalists, not the big bourgeoisie or its hegemonic fraction. In Spain in the 30s the popular front contained small bourgeois fragments around a few individuals which Trotsky called the 'shadow of the bourgeoisie'. That was enough to ensure that the Stalinists and anarchist leaders kept within the framework of a bourgeois parliament.

The important thing is that the workers party (or working class elements) in a popular front are constrained by deals done by their leaderships to appease the interests of the bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, or its 'shadow' - in the case of Venezuela the state bureaucracy that uses the regime to defend the bourgeois constitution and the defence of private property.

What is happening in Venezuela is not unique, it follows a very similar course to Mexico in the 1930s under Cardenas who formed a 'popular' united party, the PRM, nationalised the oil industry (far more than Chavez has done)and controlled the unions via his state machine which he then used to repress the workers. The PRM (and we think the PSUV) are forms of popular fronts common in Latin America created by elected strong presidents as 'populist parties' sometimes referred to a 'patriotic fronts', to bury the independence of the labour movement in a 'bloc of four classes'. e.g. workers, peasants, petty bourgeois and 'patriotic' capitalists.' The PRM was called a 'peoples front' by the Mexican CP and analysed as such by Trotsky who coined the term 'popular front party'.

Are popular front parties the same as bourgeois labour parties?

It could be argued that a popular front party is no different from the more common bourgeois workers parties such as the British or New Zealand Labour Parties. In both cases the bourgeoisie is not directly represented. For example the New Zealand Labour Party grew out of the right wing (reformist and bureaucratic) of the Labor movement with the support of small farmers. Its policies benefited the national manufacturing bourgeoisie without their direct representation (apart from the co-optation of people like businessman James Fletcher during WW11).

Both popular fronts (including parties) and bourgeois-workers (Labour or Social Democrat) parties suppress the basic class contradiction of workers representation against the bourgeois program. In Labor parties the workers can challenge the leadership when it betrays its own program. In a popular front however, the workers leaders make agreements with the bourgeois party or parties and use this agreement to discipline any attempt by the ranks to break out of the popular front. The strategy of the bourgeoisie, using the labor bureaucracy then, is the same in both forms of government. The question is what tactics to apply to break with the bourgeoisie and the labor bureaucracy?

Lenin's tactic of critical support for BW parties is well known (if not well understood). It means using the BW parties constitution to fight inside for a workers program, and getting them elected to expose their bourgeois program. Thus entry into a Labour Party activates the contradiction when the revolutionaries fight to expose the reformist program of the BW Party when it becomes the government. The the case of the popular front the tactics to break with the bourgeoisie have to be applied in such a way as not to sow illusions in the popular front. It is necessary to critically support the Workers Parties in a popular front, but only in order to break them away from the bourgeoisie.

The debate among Trotskyists about tactics towards the popular front

Some say it is impossible for workers to mobilise inside the PF to activate the suppressed contradiction because the leaderships have already made their agreements with the bourgeois, petty bourgeois, or labor bureaucratic partners. The contradiction can only be activated from outside, and so to join a popular front as the POUM did in Spain in 1936 is a betrayal because it effectively suppresses the contradiction.

Others argue that it may by possible to activate the contradiction by short term specific entry or critical support before the PF becomes elected. They point to the fact that the Trotskyist party in France in 1935 put up candidates only in electorates where the Radicals were not standing candidates. This in effect is saying to workers "vote Socialist and Communist and then demand that they break from the Radicals". That is, it may be possible to win enough representation to activate the mass movement to break the popular front if it becomes the government. This almost succeeded in France in the great strike of 1936.

In the case of popular front parties such as the PSUV where there is no direct representation of the bourgeoisie but rather its 'shadow', the state bureaucracy, the tactical question of activating the contradiction depends first on having an independent force outside the PSUV that could build support for such tactics and act as a fulcrum to exert leverage to break workers from the popular front in government.

Is the formation of a left party outside the PSUV by the LIT, PO and PTS such an independent force?

No, like the PSOL in Brazil it is not designed to mobilise the masses, but rather to form a bloc to the left of the popular front to 'pressure' it to the left. This was the policy of Pivert in France in 1935. These 'centrists' use revolutionary phrases about not joining Chavez' party to keep their 'independence'. But they capitulate to the popular front all the same by failing to tell the masses that they are trying to push a popular front party to the left when it is already subordinated to the bourgeoisie, in the case of Venezuela, through its shadow, the state bureaucracy. Thus, as in the 1930s the centrists are on the extreme left operating 'outside' the popular front to corral any maverick uprising of the masses, back into the popular front.

What is the role of revolutionaries?

Therefore the role of revolutionaries is NOT to tell the UNT to join the PSUV and fight for a revolutionary program inside to push the popular front to the left. This is a fatal mistake that led to historic defeats of the Socialist Unity in Chile 1973 and MNR party in Bolivia 1952 to name only the worst defeats. This is what the SW/NZ is advocating. Increasing the membership of unionists in the PSUV, they say, will counteract the bureaucrats, and other anti-worker interests and push the regime to the left. No, it will not, it will tie the hands of the UNT to Chavez' discipline of 'unity' and weaken the revolutionary development of the working class to face the counter-revolution that will follow when imperialism decides to act against Chavez regime, or when Chavez himself acts to repress the working class.

Against this capitulation to the popular front, the correct strategy is to build united fronts around occcupations, workers defence etc to create armed workers councils or soviets that are politically independent of both the UNT and PSUV. Tactical interventions inside the UNT and the PSUV should be made to form class fractions for a revolutionary workers party and to break up the popular front. But these tactics can only work as part of a strategy to build an independent working class politics led by a revolutionary party and program.

Revolutionary Tactics

Trotsky's position in relation to the popular front was to build united fronts of the workers organisations that were being trapped inside the popular front in order to break the base from the treacherous left leaders as a first step to breaking with the bourgeois partners and program. Clearly voting for the candidates of workers parties that propose to join a popular front government and that stand for election separately might have this effect. It might therefore be argued that in the formation of the PSUV there is an opportunity for class struggle candidates to be put up by the class struggle tendency of UNT for election that would take a revolutionary fraction program into the party to break up the popular front party. This could be one way of trying to activate the class contradiction in the PSUV.

But its success would depend on the strength of the independent workers mandate (i.e. independent workers candidates standing on the same program outside the PSUV) and how strictly the delegates were held to it in the face of the 'unity at all costs' discipline that is behind the formation of the PSUV. If this fraction was suppressed then that would be a clear indication that the contradiction was suppressed in the PSUV.

Revolutionaries must fight inside the organs of the working class to form communist fractions and cells. That means actively building revolutionary platforms in the UNT and inside any political formations arising out of the working class such as the Trotskyist centrist bloc being formed in Venezuela They should call for the formation of workers councils and workers militias of all the class struggle tendencies in the working class.

Inside these formations revolutionaries would fight to expose the PSUV as a popular front party, and the Chavez regime as a bourgeois Bonapartist regime. At the same time they would form a military bloc with all those defending the regime from imperialist destabilisation, invasion and overthrow, while stating clearly that only the armed and centralised militias of the workers and poor peasants are capable of defeating imperialism and its agents in Venezuelan society and state, and that only a workers and peasants government that creates a planned socialist economy can fulfill the demands and needs of the masses


1. Socialist Worker-New Zealand regards the unfolding revolution in Venezuela as of epochal significance. With the US military bogged down in Iraq, there is more space for Venezuela's socialist Chavistas to seriously challenge capitalism right on Washington's doorstep. This challenge has profound implications for the world's socialists. The deepening revolution in Venezuela is an historic opportunity for socialists everywhere to spotlight a real-life alternative to capitalism's inequality, eco-chaos and war. Is the unfolding Venezuelan revolution the most important leap forward for the workers' cause since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution? The answer from delegates at Socialist Worker-New Zealand's recent national conference was a unanimous "yes". VENEZUELA'S REVOLUTION IS GLOBALLY SIGNIFICANT 05 Jun 2007 from the UNITYblog

2. SW/NZ claims: “There is, at present, a dual power scenario in Venezuela where opposing class forces are "balanced out". While this state of affairs has lasted for quite a while, it is inherently unstable and cannot last forever. Either one class coalition or the other will win the war over whether Venezuela will move beyond capitalism to socialism. In this war the impact of global events will play a pivotal role, since the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union in the 1920s showed that "socialism in one country" cannot forever withstand the pressures of world capitalism.”

3. SW/NZ say: “It would be utopian to think that the PSUV could be an instantly homogenous party of revolutionaries. It will, however, be a mass socialist party with organic connections to grassroots people who support the unfolding revolution. The process of building the PSUV will challenge the reformist wing of the Bolivarian movement and precipitate a "battle of ideas" in which the masses will participate. While the initiative for the PSUV came from Chavez, it will be built "from below". Socialist militants, who played a key role in mobilising the Chavista vote during the 2006 presidential election, have become the "promoters" of the new mass socialist party. They are going out to the people to register members, who will be organised into "socialist battalions" of 200 people each. The aim is to organise 20,000 of these "battalions" across Venezuela, from which delegates will be elected to attend the PSUV's founding conference in August 2007.”