Saying No to Hugo Chávez’s Baloney Revolution

Getting out there and defending social ownership has numerous challenges. One of them is the need to disown various past and present regimes in Third World backwaters that give the idea a bad name. There hadn’t been any new ones for a while, and then along came Hugo Chávez in Venezuela with his “Bolivarian Revolution” and “21st Century Socialism”.

This “process” has two main features – limiting democracy and freedom both for opponents and adherents, and using oil revenue to buy support. There are also various bits of window dressing but these are of secondary importance.

The “Bolivarian revolution” isn’t much into boring old things like normal democratic institutions,  government accountability, the rule of law and respect for human rights. (See the recent Human Rights Watch report for a detailed account.)

The normal separation of powers and checks and balances are absent. The newly appointed members of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, dressed in full regalia, stood up at the end of their inaugural session in January 2006 and chanted: “Uuh ah, Chávez no se va” (Chávez is not going). The top brass of the military have been chosen directly by Chávez for their loyalty and willingness to enjoy the fruits of corruption and have sworn allegiance to the “revolution”.  Paramilitary groups are being trained and armed. Chavista thugs pose a threat to the opposition and the murder of student leaders, lawyers and journalists is becoming a common occurrence.  Cuban intelligence has a whole section devoted to helping Hugo.

With the courts in Chávez’s pocket, they have largely abdicated their role as a check on arbitrary state action and a guarantor of fundamental rights.

Privately owned free to air TV are pretty much confined now to stations that have agreed to tow the line and the public ones are heavily pro-Chávez.

By presidential decree all TV and radio stations are required without prior warning to broadcast Chávez or some government event which may go for hours. This happened 1710 times in the first 9 years of his presidency. This is not quite as bad as Castro forcing Cubans to stand in the hot sun for hours and listen to his drivel, but bad enough.

Equally creepy is the lack of free discussion within Chávez’s own camp.

The Caracas Chronicles blog makes a telling point:

“Having committed completely to a discourse that automatically dismisses any critical thought as “media terrorism” or “CIA psy ops” geared at planting destabilizing “opinion matrixes”, Chávez supporters effectively ban themselves from engaging critically with the mass of contradictions the revolution daily generates.”

Decision are made entirely by Chávez, and his flunkies snap to attention. See Section 5 of the PBS video The Hugo Chávez Show: “As seen weekly on Aló Presidente, it’s not the opposition, but Chávez’s own supporters and cabinet members who most lack freedom of expression.

Chávez has created a new Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to swallow up the coalition of parties that have supported his regime. This is very much under his control and he has made it clear that people who resist being merged are obviously agents of imperialism and the oligarchy.

That is the nasty Chávez. Now let’s look at the nice Chávez who dispenses  largess, made possible up till now by sky rocketing oil prices.

Most well known among the support-buying schemes are those that have turned the poor into grateful clients or dependents through the “Bolivarian Missions“. These include programs relating to education, health and food. The first relies to some extent on soldiers, the second on conscripted Cuban doctors provided in partial payment for oil and the third on government food stores selling subsidized food.

Despite these scheme, there are real doubts about the claims of the poor getting a much better deal over what they have always got when oil revenues rose in the past. (See this debate over income shares.)

The poor have to contend with high unemployment, rising prices and shortages of necessities, deteriorating basic infrastructure, squalor and horrific levels of crime. Also many of the missions are riddled with incompetence and corruption. This no doubt ensures the support of those running them. The level of abstentions by former supporters in the 2007 referendum and 2008 local elections indicates some of the resulting disaffection.

Equally important as far as buying support goes is giving army officers jobs in government and industry so that they can feather their own nests through corruption. This includes both siphoning off oil revenue and getting a share of drug money. Then there is the “bolibourgeoisie” or “boligarchs” who are tied to the government through contracts that never go to tender.

Even the middle class opposition has been partly neutralized by various benefits.  While the poor have received doubtful benefits, the former have received real ones through dirt cheap petrol and the chance to buy and sell US dollars for a profit.

There is a lot of window dressing. Much of it does double duty as opportunities for corruption and support-buying. The missions already mentioned sound fightfully radical. Then there are cooperatives which in some cases have received  subsidies and preferential access to  government contracts. Often they are just small service businesses with a fancy name. Nationalized companies are “socialist enterprises”. An occasional chunk of land is expropriated and subdivided under a blaze of publicity. Then there was that recent stunt where Chavez took over an almost complete shopping mall and declared that it would be turned into a school or hospital.

It would be good to see a lot more information on how crappy “Bolivarian socialism” is. These articles from an anarchist site are an interesting starter – 1, 2. So is this Chávez-friendly article.

A fair section of the pseudo left love Chávez. His denunciation of “The Empire” goes down well. He also claims to be threatened by US plots which then allows him to accuse his opponents of being traitors.

The reality is that Chávez is the main beneficiary of the abandonment of the US Cold War policy of preventing “left” regimes from coming to power in South America. Furthermore, Venezuela ships about 1.1 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, its No. 1 client. So it is not exactly being subject to an embargo like Cuba or blockaded like Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Chávez must pray at night for a US backed coup attempt. He is the only one who would benefit. The pseudo left must be in a bind on this one. They cannot really imagine their Messiah, Barak Obama, would attempt to overthrow their darling Hugo.

“Left” supporters have an increasing problem with cognitive dissonance in this area. Even those most lavish in their praise for Chávez acknowledge that most of the leading “Bolivarists” are not interested in any real social revolution and so they pin their hopes on the masses somehow becoming more energized and pushing the “revolution” to the next stage.

Michael Albert at ZNet conveys an interesting ambivalence. He tells us that what is happening in Venezuela is “exciting” but then expresses his concern that Chávez’s intentions are very unclear and concludes that one cannot rule out plain old statism or even a second Cuba.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the 15 February referendum on eliminating terms limits and then how declining oil revenue affect the economy. Chávez is pulling out all the stops to get a yes vote. There is a danger that things could get nasty both now and further down the track. The Supreme Court may permit all sorts of arrangements to allow Chávez to overstay his welcome. The military is politicized and there are separate militias and other armed gangs. These two Venezuelan blogs are good for following developments – 1, 2. And this is the most well known Chavista “solidarity” site.

What is happening in Venezuela deserves far more detailed treatment. Particularly the “socialist” stuff. But this will have to do from me. Other priorities call.

I’ll end with a couple of general observations.

1. A real social revolution would have to take democracy, transparency and accountability to a new far more advanced stage from what we have in North America and western Europe. This is necessary in order to prevent officials from turning public property into de facto private property. (Think present day Cuba or the old Soviet Union.) This means being able to scrutinize and dispute the actions and policies of high officials. Far less important are “grass roots” assemblies at the municipal or workplace level which deal with lesser matters and tend to be dominated by people who like going to meetings. (Guess who.)

2. The backward political, social and economic conditions of the kind still found in Venezuela are not fertile ground for socialism. Anyone who claims otherwise is into something bogus. Such radical change would have to be centred on the most highly advanced countries such as the U.S.A. and Western Europe.

P.S. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, twenty-eight newspapers across the country including Venezuela’s largest newspaper, Ultimas Noticias, publish a new column by Chávez. Here is a translation of the first column from January 23. Patriotism and “anti-imperialism” are indeed the last refuge of the scoundrel.

23 Responses to “Saying No to Hugo Chávez’s Baloney Revolution”

  1. 1 Mac 2

    Ha! Nothing so horrible as real-life socialism for you neo-cons, is there? While Chavez is not perfect he is not a dictator, and there is plenty of real-life ‘social ownership’ in V – just look at all the co-ops and worker-government joint-managed factories (Alcasa aluminium, Sidor steel etc). The constitution has given women and gays and other oppressed minorities the Iraqis can only dream of. But the phrase ‘Third Word backwaters’ pretty much gives away your attitude. Keep waiting for that Kautskyian transition from First World neo-liberalism to socialism if you want, boys – you’ll be waiting a long time. The Third World will continue to supply most of the revolutionary situations in the world, as Lenin and Trotsky knew it would.

  2. 2 dalec

    David, yep that Chavez is certainly a nasty piece of work. You have done a good job of demolishing a character that everyone sees through. Now how about a post on Uribe, you know the guy that was awarded the medal of freedom by your departing hero George W Bush.
    Your point 2. “2. The backward political, social and economic conditions of the kind still found in Venezuela are not fertile ground for socialism. Anyone who claims otherwise is into something bogus. Such radical change would have to be centred on the most highly advanced countries such as the U.S.A. and Western Europe.”

    Interesting; Just as well Lenin is too dead to have ever read that.


  3. 3 Maps

    Yes, this post is a very pure example of the strand of imperiocentric mechnanical Marxism that peaked about a hundred years ago in Europe and has almost (thankfully) vanished from the face of the earth:

  4. 4 davidmc

    Mac 2, there certainly needs to be better analysis of the cooperatives, joint managed factories etc. I provided a few useful links that supported my view that it is all crap.  Perhaps you would like to contribute a bit more than the mere assertion that they represent “real life social-ownership.”

    Yes the defeat of Saddam’s tyranny in Iraq is a mere trifle compared with the achievements of El Boofhead.

    I recall that Lenin and Trotsky were more than a tad disappointed when they discovered that the revolution in the more advanced West was a no goer.

    Dalec, in my view it is obvious that backward countries do not provide fertile ground and Lenin agreed totally. What is not obvious is what communist revolutionaries should do if they become a major political force in such countries. My position is that in Russia and China they pushed things forward as well as they could and were better than any alternative force then on the scene. Mao had a far better understanding of the problem than Stalin. In both cases the tenuous revolutionary movements were eventually swamped by the backward conditions. As for Venezuela, there is no credible revolutionary movement, so the question does not arise. Any genuine leftists would be uniting with other forces resisting Chavez’s autocratic encrouchments.

    Maps, I love the description.  I intend to read the article you have linked to.

  5. 5 Mac 2

    So let me get this straight…you’re criticising Chavez for being authoritarian but you like…Mao?

  6. 6 davidmc

    Yes that’s right, Mac2.  Here is a link to his Little Red Book.

    Looking forward to your defence of Venezuela’s co-ops, co-management etc.

  7. 7 Arthur

    I found the article Maps linked to an interesting read. It starts with a reasonably thorough and broadly correct explanation that the sort of “anti-imperialist” views the pseudo-left finds congenial are indeed, as Chavez points out, diametrically opposed to classical orthodox Marxism as espoused by Marx in the published work that established a viewpoint known as Marxism.Then it goes on to claim that some unpublished works available only in Russian demonstrate that Marx abandoned Marxism in his dotage.Interestingly the JPRS has withdrawn its translation. I would be interested to read the document and any information as to whether it was a Brezhnevite forgery. But that’s because I am interested in all sorts of things.Either way it could not change the facts about where Marxism has always stood on these issues and how diametrically opposed the views of the “anti-imperialist” pseudo-left are, that is spelled out with such clarity in the first part of the article.

    There is something quite pathological about the theoretical desperation of people who take comfort from the idea that Marx might have written something unpublished that implies a belief that Russia could have skipped the capitalist mode of production if only things had turned out differently.Where does that get them? What actual comfort could they draw from it, given the actual development in which the Russian village communes did in fact disintegrate and capitalism did develop?

    Is it somehow supposed to rescue the Narodniks from total failure, or make it more plausible that today’s populists could get anywhere? If so, how?

    I think David does go overboard in a Kautskyite direction – consistent with Marx, Plekhanov and Kautsky but not with Lenin, Stalin or Mao. But that is still far closer to a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist position than anything that comes out of the pseudoleft or the likes of Chavez.

  8. 8 dalec

    Arthur, “Overboard” indeed.In his 1915 article “On the Slogan for a United States of Europe”, Lenin stated the following: “…Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone. After expropriating the capitalists and organising their own socialist production, the victorious proletariat of that country will arise against the rest of the world …” I am not suggesting that Chavez is a socialist hero. I do think he is a total pain in the arse for the US which is why he is being attacked. “Strange Times” and its precursor has been an assiduous defender of US Imperialism and stout advocate for the thesis that the liberation of the world must wait until the highest possible development of capitalism occurs. Well they had plenty of company in Kautsky et al. No doubt we will be told that the world has moved on since then and only supine support for Imperial plunder and murder will liberate us – eventually.If that’s your message why not be honest about it?Dalec

  9. 9 Arthur

    Thanks for the illustration of what I meant by saying that even the most liberal and Kautskyite stuff here is vastly more revolutionary than the “militant” posturing of outright enemies of any kind of revolutionary democracy still moaning that the liberation of Iraq from fascism was “not in our name” and siding with the “resistance” of mass murderers to prevent exercise of the most elementary democratic rights.No, liberation won’t wait – and it won’t be in your name.

  10. 10 Maps

    ‘There is something quite pathological about the theoretical desperation of people who take comfort from the idea that Marx might have written something unpublished’ Marx’s letters to Vera Zasulich were published eighty-odd years ago. The Ethnological Notebooks were published 36 years ago. Marx’s late notes on Arab society were published 30 years ago. The original, pre-Engels edition of volumes two and three of Capital were published 10 years ago. Marx scholarship has caught up with all these developments. There is a big literature on Marx’s late work. Don’t blame us if you haven’t caught up.

    ‘I would be interested to read the document and any information as to whether it was a Brezhnevite forgery.’You are aware that it was under Stalin that the publication of the late work of Marx was stopped? Worse than that, the archivists working on it were murdered. I am pleased that present-day admirers of Stalin like yourselves do not have the ability to make this sort of intervention in scholarly discourse.

    There’s no criticism of the ‘anti-imperialist left’ in the piece I linked to (which was the text of  paper I gave at a sociology conference a couple of years ago). I am rather anti-imperialist myself. I’m simply for scholarship, rather than for a reliance on dogmatic schemas which actually explain very little about the real world. The one-dimensional ‘Chavez is a baddie’ analysis you recyle here is as bad in this respect as the ‘Chavez is a God’ analysis which comes from a few of the sillier left-wing blogs. Any formulation so one-sided is bound to fail as a description of a process as complex as a revolution.

    If you want to understand Venezuela, then I’d advise actually spending some time studying the place. You won’t find the hothouses of the internet much help in this enterprise – I’d advise hitting the shelves and rooting through some of the vast academic literature which accumulated on Venezuela in the late ’80s and ’90s, when it was the showpiece of the IMF and neo-liberalism. That’s what I did, anyway – here are my conclusions, for whatever they’re worth: actually think that this website and its proprietors are worthy of investigation by scholars of intellectual history. Your little sect appears to have fused two repugnant but (on the face of it) dichotomous ideologies – Stalinism and neo-conservatism. The human mind is a strange thing…

  11. 11 davidmc

    Maps, that sentence by Arthur about unpublished works has a modifying clause on the end of it which gives it a totally different meaning to your truncated quote which leaves off that clause.

  12. 12 Arthur

    The human mind is indeed a strange thing.

    “Even today, many Marxist groups offer new or prospective members the Communist Manifesto as an introduction to their creed. This is regrettable, because the first few pages of the Manifesto read more like the columns of Thomas Friedman or the editorials of the Wall Street Journal than the work of a revolutionary socialist.”

    The author of that, whose favourite works include Lenin’s philosophical notebooks (learning from a notoriously right-wing Prussian philosopher called Hegel) is shocked that there are communists who still support the ideas of the communist manifesto despite having noticed the obvious fact that the pseudoleft “Marxist” groups that distribute it have no idea what it actually says.

  13. 13 Maps

    ‘learning from a notoriously right-wing Prussian philosopher called Hegel’

    Oh really! I actually am not a massive fan of Hegel – if you read the Notebooks you’ll notice that most of the material isn’t actually about Hegel – but if this is the level of seriousness you bring to discussing the history of ideas then I’m not surprised you’ve ended up in such a cul de sac.

    Crikey, who do you think Marx was reading when he wrote the Grundrisse and the first draft of Capital?

    ‘communists who still support the ideas of the communist manifesto’

    The Manifesto is a fascinating document, full of contradictions as well as insights. It’s not something that can be swallowed whole. You might like to read Marx’s introduction to the 1882 Russian edition, where he takes back some of the claims in the original text. You can also read him repudiating the allusions to the Opium Wars and the ‘revolutionising’ of India by British imperialism in his subsequent writings about those countries. By the standards of dogmatists – and you seem as pitifully dogmatic and philistine as any Spart – Marx has never been a Marxist. You ought to get together with the Sparts and stage a three man demonstration in favour of the proposition that the Opium Wars were historically progressive. Dogmatism always leads to the dustbin of history.

  14. 14 Maps

    Since I have the ear of the proprietor(s) of this esteemed site, may I ask you, out of strictly scholarly interest: are there any other members of the non-pseudo-left apart from yourselves, or you are The One True Church?

    I ask this question because I haven’t encountered many people on the left who see the US Marines as a reincarnation of the International Brigades, see Howard’s invasion of Aboriginal lands and industrial relations policy as liberatory, and quote Thomas Friedman kindly.

    Is there an actual organisation which one who has recognised the error of his ways might join in order to fraternise with the similarly enlightened, or does the non-pseudo-left exist only on the internet?

  15. 15 Arthur

    I can’t speak for “the proprietors” but can tell you that your style of discourse indicates the type of people you “encounter” and assume to be “the left”.

    So far you have:

    1. Responded by a survey article which included 15 links to various pro and anti Chavez detailed material by claiming such “hothouse” material available through the internet is of little value compared with the fruits of your own “research”, likewise published conveniently on the internet.

    Consider the possibility that an actual substantive direct response to something David actually said, or even to something said in one of the many items he linked to, might result in more of a perception that you actually wish to engage in discussion and less of a perception that you don’t.

    2. Responded to my brief critique of the absurdity of your attempt to reconcile views that you know as well as Chavez does to be directly opposed to those of Marx and the trend known as Marxism that flowed from the Communist Manifesto, by completely ignoring the substantive issue of whether the Narodnik views you claim can be found in works not published by Marx in his lifetime, or that of his literary executors have been refuted by the actual history of the disintegration of the Russian village communes and emergence of capitalism, as documented for example by Lenin.

    Shouting passionately about “Stalinism”, “sectarianism”, “dogmatism” and contrasting it with your “scholarship” may pass as an adequate substitute for an ability to actually argue a point in circles that you regard as “the left”, but that’s precisely why you won’t encounter people like us, or anybody else much, bothering to take them seriously. If you wish to be treated seriously, consider trying a different approach and responding directly to issues raised.

    As to your sarcastic inquiry as to whether there is any organization you could join if you arrived at the conclusions you ascribe to us, I can confidently reassure you that there is no risk of any of the windmills you choose to tilt at tilting back.

  16. 16 Maps

    It’s a fairly simple question, Arthur. You speak passionately of the pseudo-left, but who are the non-pseudo-left, the enlightened ones? Where do I sign up? In the 1970s EP Thompson met the last living Muggletonian, a fruit farmer from Kent named Noakes. Noakes firmly believed in Muggletonian doctrine, but his explanations of that doctrine faltered whenever he reached the ‘We believe…’ Are you, like Noakes, the last keeper of a sacred flame, the one remaining member of the One True Church, or are there others bravely advancing the cause? I’m probably ignorant, but I haven’t detected a widespread enthusiasm for Bush and Howard on the right, let alone the left.

  17. 17 dalec

    Maps, Perhaps I might be so bold as to attempt at least one explanation. It seems that the core belief of the Last Superpower, Strange Times groupling can be summarised thus:US imperialism is now the major force for the liberation of the world from the domination of “islamofascism” – whatever “islamofascism” means.The various wars of Imperial conquest (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) are justified by the stated aim of bringing democracy to these countries, they really have nothing at all to do with conquest or subjugation of the people. The killing is entirely justified by the stated aim of “democratic change”. This conquest has nothing at all to do with global domination or the control of global resources, it is entirely altruistic, stemming from the most pure motives.I think that is a fair summation.

  18. 18 Maps

    Yes, I gathered that. The stuff about a global warming conspiracy and support for Howard’s industrial relations policy and invasions of Aboriginal land just rounds out the picture, don’t it? What fascinates me is the confidence these two or three folks have in dismissing everyone else as the ‘pseudo-left’, and pronouncing themselves the One True Church. I mean, they make the Fourth International look like a mass organisation. I was wondering whether they actually had any real-world, organisational basis at all – it appears not. I’ll have to join those Sparts instead.

  19. 19 byork

    Neither dalec nor Maps has shown a willingness or capacity for debate. dalec still can’t even accurately sum up the ‘draining the swamps’ analysis. He just doesn’t get it. Maps is unable to engage in debate with davidmc about Chavez – all he can do is resort to sarcasm and big-noting. It’s sad really. As for those of us who reject the pseudo-left, we can celebrate the fact that we have been on the right side in Iraq and elsewhere in support of democracy. I suggest that the moderator should stop publishing the posts from dalec and Maps that do not engage in debate. They can then be set free to regroup with their own ‘mass’ organisations that will no doubt continue to bemoan the progress that is happening around the world while simultaenously seeing no need to actually engage with what their opponents on the left are arguing.

  20. 20 Arthur

    Maps, instead of raving about “enthusiasm for Bush and Howard” like dalek, it would have been easy enough for a normal person, not totally up themselves, to ask a straight question like “are you aware of any organizations that advocate views broadly similar to those expressed here”.

    Because you are the way you are, I’m sure you’ve encountered a common reaction of “just another academic pseudo” and an equally common reaction of “just another leftist wanker”.You would be aware of the incessant right-wing polemics to the effect that “the left” are irrelevant.

    Although the consensus that your views are quite absurd and irrelevant is overwhelming, it is also sadly the case that the right has been successful in presenting such views as “the left”. So most people reject them as both pseudo and left instead of understanding that they are not left at all, but merely pseudoleft.

    The overwhelming majority of people who consider themselves progressive in some sense either no longer identify themselves as left at all, because they accept the right wing characterization of what is left, or consider themselves “inactive” because they feel obliged to pay lipservice to widely held “left” views such as opposing the invasion of Iraq but don’t see much point in actually trying to do anything in support of those views since they don’t actually make all that much sense and they certainly don’t want to waste time with the obvious nutters who do dedicate themselves to organizing around views they only nominally agree with.

  21. 21 Maps

    Ah, I see, you are the One True Church of the secret majority. It might seem like your Holy Trinity of Stalin, Mao, and Bush are an unpopular troika, but the people sectrely hold them in their hearts. Pathetic. You really can’t point to a single organisation that holds your views, can you? Worse, you don’t even have the self-belief to found one yourselves (if there is indeed more than one of you). At least the Sparts can be found doing paper sales.

  22. 22 byork

    Still no sign that Maps is capable of debating. I suppose there’s benefit in allowing this stuff on the site to prove the point about the pseudos.

  23. 23 dalec

    I and others would be most interested to read the ST analysis of the US and COW invasion of Afghanistan and of course the destruction of villages in Pakistan by drones and such.Perhaps explain to lesser mortals the strategic aims of this exercise and the likely outcomes?Dalec.

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