Venezuela’s National, Anti-Imperialist, and Developing Anticapitalist Revolution

by Stuart Munckton

Over the past several years Stuart Munckton has written extensively on the revolutionary process under way in Venezuela for the Australian socialist publication Green Left Weekly. On July 21, a contribution by Munckton was posted to the “marxmail” discussion group, with the following preliminary note: “Green Left Weekly’s writer on Venezuela Stuart Munckton has asked me to post this to the list. He is off to Venezuela for international solidarity brigade and the World Festival of Youth and Students.”

Munckton’s contribution seems to us especially valuable and informative in its description of how the process of permanent revolution has been unfolding in Venezuela (although Munckton doesn’t use the term), and his account of the key function of transitional demands in this process.(He does quote from the “Transitional Program” by Trotsky on the subject of workers control.) For these reasons, we are adding Munckton’s contribution, edited slightly for style purposes, to the several other recent reports and analyses on Venezuela posted on our web site.—The Editors, Labor Standard.

The discussion on this list [] about the Venezuelan revolution and how it relates to the struggle for socialism and the role of Chávez, etc., is an issue I have spent a lot of time thinking about and I wanted to put my two cents in. This is based on other things I have written, and so doesn’t necessarily respond directly to points others have named, but takes up the general points. I have to apologize in advance if anyone sees fit to respond to any points I make, that I probably won’t be in a position to respond because I have the enormous pleasure and privilege to leave the political backwaters of mini-imperialist Australia for revolutionary Venezuela in a few days.

(There are over 60 people from Australia, many who are already there, traveling to Venezuela for a solidarity brigade in advance of the World Federation of Democratic Youth congress, dividing up into four mini-brigades and spreading out across the country to see the revolution in action. It includes student activists, trade unionists, a Greens candidate from last elections, members of Resistance and Socialist Alliance. It should be fascinating.)

I strongly disagree with any argument that denies Venezuela is a semi-colonial nation. This ignores key factors about the reality of the Venezuelan economy and politics. The entire revolutionary process to this point has been shaped and determined in large part by the reality of imperialist domination and the struggle against it. At the center is oil—all this oil wealth, who controls it and uses it for what purpose. More than that, how does the oil relate to the rest of the Venezuelan economy? How the oil wealth is used and how it has determined the rest of the economy is central to imperialist domination of Venezuela and to the struggle against it.

The key thing is that the struggle for socialism flows out of the national, anti-imperialist struggle, which is objectively the basis for starting the revolution. I hope to provide strong reasons based on the actual development of the economy and the struggle in Venezuela.

First thing, the masses of the Venezuelan people have entered the struggle, as masses of people always do, not according to a well-developed program but according to a crisis that needs to be solved and they will struggle to solve. In Venezuela’s case, [this is] the extreme poverty the masses have been condemned to. People want to know why [the poverty], when there is so much oil wealth? Not, why are the means of production privately owned by a capitalist class who generate profit out of wage slavery, but why is a country so rich in oil so hopelessly poor?

The struggle to resolve this problem is the centerpiece of the Bolivarian Revolution. It reveals a general truth about the struggle against imperialism in the countries oppressed by imperialism that Che Guevera was very sharp on and wrote some wonderful things about.

One of the best examples is his brilliant article “Cuba: Exceptional case or vanguard in the struggle against colonialism?” which can be read here.

Che’s article details the general dynamic of struggle against imperialism and how this determines the class struggle and struggle for socialism. In it Che explains very well how imperialism impacts on the economy, it is worth emphasising. Che wrote:

“For us, the peoples of America, they have another polite and refined term: ‘underdeveloped.’ What is ‘underdeveloped’? A dwarf with an enormous head and a swollen chest is ‘underdeveloped,’ inasmuch as his weak legs or short arms do not match the rest of his anatomy. He is the product of an abnormal formation that distorted his development. That is really what we are, we, who are politely referred to as ‘underdeveloped,’ but in truth are colonial, semi-colonial, or dependent countries. We are countries whose economies have been twisted by imperialism, which has abnormally developed in us those branches of industry or agriculture needed to complement its complex economy. ‘Underdevelopment,’ or distorted development, brings dangerous specialization in raw materials, inherent in which is the threat of hunger for all our peopIes. We, the underdeveloped, are also those with monoculture, with the single product, with the single market. A single product whose uncertain sale depends on a single market that imposes and fixes conditions—that is the great formula for imperialist economic domination. It should be added to the old, but eternally young, Roman slogan Divide and Conquer!”

This is a very good description of the central problem in Venezuela: heavily distorted development. The whole economy deformed and twisted around the oil industry—oil the raw product imperialism needs to “complement its complex economy.” The single product, everything else left abandoned. In the barrios this is felt extremely sharply of course, because they are the living embodiment of this adandonment. With fuck-all infrastructure, no decent housing, no health care, high unemployment, basically, economic abandonment in an economy twisted to serve one purpose above all others: the provision of a raw product to service imperialism.

The struggle against this has been the center of the Bolivarian revolution. Not the abolition of capitalism—which is only now, six years into the process, being posed.

And of course, this leaves Venezuela completely at the mercy of the oil market. This might seem a good deal now because oil is high, but it is a big problem. Venezuelan history since oil is a history of good oil prices, allowing the government to spend money, in a corrupt and clientelist way [favoring a privileged clientele], and to buy popularity. [When there is] a fall in oil prices the money stops and a crisis ensures. And of course, oil won’t last forever. Venezuela has [as Che put it] “a single product whose uncertain sale depends on a single market,” and, as Che says “inherent in this is the threat of hunger for all our peoples.”

This is no idle threat in Venezuela. One dramatic result is that Venezuela imports up to 80% of its food! Its agricultural industry is so weak and abandoned that they import 80% of their food. And their ability to do this is determined by “the uncertain sale” of a single product. The “threat of hunger” is very real!

The struggle is the struggle to break this dependency, which has been forced on Venezuela by imperialism. The struggle is felt in a series of interconnected ways against a series of interconnected consequences of this distorted development which has left 80% of the people in poverty.

The first thing to understand is the land question and its impact on the poor. Firstly, 75% of useable land is in 5% of landowners hands. The increase in poverty in rural areas in the 1970s and ‘80s drove large numbers into the cities to look for work. However, the impact of neoliberalism and the lack of development leaves millions in the cities abandoned. This is crucial to understanding the struggle in Venezuela. The majority of the working class in Venezuela is not in the formal sector [of the economy]. Because the formal sector is not developed enough to accommodate them, because the economy is twisted around oil, and the oil wealth [up to now was] taken by a corrupt elite backed by imperialism because they ensured the imperialists could buy the oil cheap. [The number of workers in the informal economy] is a bit over 50% of the working class, estimated at around 7 million workers.

They are forced into unemployment, into the black market, into individual solutions like becoming street vendors, etc. An atomized, impoverished mass of people not involved in socialized production—and therefore not looking to solutions like a socialized, democratically planned economy, because it doesn’t mean anything in the context of their immediate problems. This was the original mass base for Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, although increasingly over the last two or so years the industrial working class has joined the revolution and is playing an increasingly central role.

Now the 75% of land owned by a tiny minority is largely left idle or underutilized. And when it is utilized, it is often owned by foreign agribusiness and the food produced is exported for the foreign market.

So the struggle is interconnected. The land reform is crucial, firstly, for the rural poor to get land to work. For the government it is tied to developing agriculture and solving the fact that they have to import 80% of their food. So land that is idle or underutilized can be redistributed to those who are willing to work it. It also can help with the millions of urban poor in slums by encouraging them to take land in the countryside to work, thus alleviating the problems in the barrios.

Using the oil wealth in a different way—serving Venezuela and the goal of development rather than imperialism—is crucial to this, because with the oil wealth the government provides cheap credit to the rural and urban poor to form cooperatives and to develop previously underdeveloped branches of the economy—especially food production. These cooperatives can work land redistributed that was previously idle. And, by helping fund (by the end of this year) 100,000 cooperatives, previously abandoned and impoverished masses of people can form cooperatives and find economic empowerment that helps drag them out of degradation and draw them into the productive economy and begins to involve them in some form of collective production.

And, poverty can be combated by using the oil wealth to fund missions to solve the most pressing problems—health care, education, housing. And in doing so, you can prioritize using the cooperatives formed with government loans and thus combat unemployment. You can subsidize the distribution of food, thus alleviating poverty while breaking the hold of the large supermarket chains, and what is more you can source as much as possible your produce from the cooperatives rather than importing it. You are lifting the urban and rural poor out of degradation and you are developing much needed areas of the economy, previously abandoned by the urban and rural elite [who are] either dominated by or utterly servile to imperialist interests.

That is the struggle in Venezuela; that is its course. Not, in the first place for socialism, but for national developments in order to solve the problems of the masses, an anti-imperialist revolution.

The national elite is confronted first of all as a national enemy. Venezuelan elites conspired, internationally, through OPEC, to keep oil prices low by breaking the quotas all the time. Venezuela was one of the worst offenders! Flooding the market and bringing prices down. This meant Venezuela was almost giving away its oil wealth. What a crime against the nation! At the same time as 80% languished in poverty, abandoned! The elite conspired in the 1990s to open the oil reserves up to imperialist exploitation, signing joint ventures with multinationals that gave the multinationals all the advantages and allowed them to pay little or not tax! What a crime against the nation! The elites were conspiring to lay the groundwork for the full privatization of the state-run oil industry! What a crime against the nation!

It is this betrayal by the local capitalist class and the latifundists—who won’t use their land to serve the needs of the Venezuelan people—that is the main driving force of the Bolivarian revolution, to overturn this betrayal. So, the Bolivarian government immediately began to organize in OPEC for a strong enforcement of quotas to ensure a fairer price. [This is] a blow against imperialism and gives Venezuela money to solve the pressing needs of the people. The government passes legislation to give it full control over the oil industry—to use it to break the distortion.

The government, only putting this into practice recently, forces oil corporations to pay their taxes and greatly increases the royalties they pay. The government, recently, moves to force the multinationals to sign new agreements, which give the state-run industry at least 51% control over any agreement. Anti-imperialist measures that give the Venezuelan government, as opposed to imperialists, control over the industry.

And the key is how they use their control over the industry. The workers mobilized to win the industry from the corrupt elite after the elite tried to use it to bring down the government [in the managers’ strike and shutdown of the oil industry in December 2003-January 2004].

A New York Times article last year explained what has happened since [the failed bosses’ strike]: “’Right now, Pdvsa [the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuala, SA] is not a mercantile entity,’ said Antonio Szabó, a former executive at Pdvsa who left long before Mr. Chávez came to power and who is now chief executive of Stone Bond Technologies, a Houston software and energy consulting firm. ‘Right now, it’s an instrument of the Venezuelan government.’ Even at companies like Total that are moving toward a deal, executives describe tough negotiations that leave them wondering how committed Pdvsa really is to expanding the role of private companies.

“‘We are proposing to invest in a $4 billion project immediately, and we agree to work in terms of the new law,’ said Jean-Marie Guillermou of Total’s Venezuela operations. ‘Normally, a country would want to jump on this. They don’t do it. Why?’

“The company that has emerged from the ashes of the strike that ended in February 2003 is nothing like the button-down, corporate-style company that in the 1990’s was often the No. 1 provider of foreign oil to the United States.

“Gone is the by-the-book giant, which had $42 billion in sales, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission last October. Gone is the multinational whose managers once proudly compared Pdvsa to Exxon Mobil. Gone, too, are 18,000 experienced executives and managers who were fired for their role in the strike.

“So is the autonomy the company once wielded, replaced by a highly centralized management controlled by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. The government recently announced that $2 billion in Pdvsa revenue would bypass the central bank and form a special development fund to pay for public projects like a hydroelectric plant and a new state airline. Another $1.7 billion—taken from Pdvsa’s $5 billion capitalization budget—is going to social programs, Rafael Ramírez, the minister of energy and mines, announced.

“And with the Aug. 15 recall referendum that could end Mr. Chávez’s presidency drawing ever nearer, the spending spree—on everything from housing to railroads, health clinics and literacy programs—is an increasingly important, and successful, tool for solidifying support for Mr. Chávez. Recent polls show he could squeak to victory.”

This is the centerpiece of the anti-imperialist revolution being carried out, a struggle for national development and against the degradation of the majority of the population. It hasn’t developed, in the first place, as a struggle for socialism or against capitalism.

But through the struggle for national development, the working people have had to confront the local capitalist class and overcome its resistance. This has radicalized the process and pushed it an increasingly anticapitalist direction.

The essence of the struggle is encapsulated in the concept of “endogenous development,” national development, via economically mobilizing the previously abandoned majority into cooperatives, or through workers co-management, to combat the legacy of imperialism. It is formulated, in the first place, by the needs of national development.

The fresh announcement of possibly hundreds of companies being expropriated only serves to ram home the point even harder. Why do these companies face expropriation? Because they are inherently exploitative? No. Because they closed.

This is how Chávez and the government explain it. They are not facing expropriation for the general crime of being capitalist, but for being capitalists who do not utilize their means of production. This is a crime against the nation. A blow against the plan for endogenous development, which amounts to Venezuela developing.

The Minister of Labor called for a struggle against capitalists who close companies, calling on “the trade unions and the workers and former workers of these companies to recover them. Only with the strength of the workers can we defeat this internal enemy, which is dependency, and which keeps us away from our goals in the struggle against poverty”.

What was that? “Dependency”? Yes, dependency. That means something in a nation when you are dependent on 80% of your food being imported! When you have to buy back the raw product you export, oil, as petrol [gasoline] at exorbitant prices.

This is the basis for the revolutionary measures like these expropriations. This is the course the revolution takes, dictated by the need to break with underdevelopment—or, as Che put it so well, “distorted” development.

Or else what has happened the last few years? Is the revolution just a joke, a cruel trick played on the masses of people? Or is there actually a revolution despite the fact that the measures and the course has not been socialist?

Those socialists who think this is not right, and that the task of introducing socialism should have started long ago, or must start today, like to blame Hugo Chávez and his government. The blame is misplaced. They should direct their anger and frustrations at the revolutionary masses, because this is the course they are pushing for. And after all, the mass discussion currently under way on socialism was initiated by Chávez.

But this fact only serves to drive home the class nature of this struggle for national development, this struggle to break from imperialist oppression. This national democratic revolution is carried out against the local capitalist class, as a whole, by and in the interests of the broad working masses. This does not make it socialist. But it opens the road to socialism. Venezuela proves this general trajectory for revolutions in the underdeveloped nations perfectly well.

The course of the Venezuelan revolution is both as a national and class struggle. The national struggle in underdeveloped countries has a tendency to develop along class lines because of the weakness of the local capitalist class, because of how tied the elite, the oligarchy, is to imperialism. The Venezuelan elite has been completely tied to [multinational (imperialist) corporate domination of] the oil wealth and its distribution. The distribution of oil wealth has been the basis for the development of the corrupt elite who live parasitically off its distribution and has funded a bloated state bureaucracy. A key revolutionary measure was to decisively take the oil industry out of their hands, which occurred following the sabotage of the oil industry by the corrupt management elite and their hangers-on in the industry—backed by the rest of the elite and imperialist interests inside Venezuela. The purge gave the government full control over the industry and was the basis for the beginnings of the social missions in earnest.

Having won control of the industry, the government was able to use the money to begin to solve the problems facing the Venezuelan people. For the poor masses, health care, education, housing, fresh water, subsidized food, etc. The immediate measures required to solve their immediate problems and start to lift them out of degradation. The government funding of cooperatives which take previously atomized urban and rural poor and help empower them economically while at the same time promoting the development of sections of the Venezuelan economy that need developing, that, while that capital is in the hands of either the imperialists or the local elite, simply will not be developed. Again, a national food supply is a key part. Also new government industries, building up the [natural] gas industry, etc., helped by the use of the oil wealth.

And, guess what, it is a hit with the masses, which is why Chávez’s approval rating is going through the roof. But, of course, there is the struggle to “deepen” the revolution, to have a “revolution within the revolution.” There are big debates about overcoming a “reformist” culture, and about tackling corruption within the process, about dealing with the opportunists, about overcoming the fact that the pro-Chávez political parties are racked with these problems and are not adequate enough tools for the revolution.

But the problem here is not with the course the revolution is on, but rather the problems of implementing the course. The problem is that the land reform is too slow, a fact complained about by peasant organizations and acknowledged by the head of the land reform institution. The problem, acknowledged by Chávez, is that the credit to the cooperatives is too slow, not coming fast enough. The problem is that not enough houses have been built. The problem is corruption within the government-subsidized supermarket chains. The problem is how to clear the way on the course they are traveling, not that the course itself is wrong.

And the problem is ultimately about building popular power, building the poor of the working people and the urban and rural poor to be able carry these measures out properly. It is, as William Izarra points out, about overcoming the reformist institutions and culture and building revolutionary institutions and culture based on direct democracy and participation.

As Venezuela is showing, the struggle to lift the country out of underdevelopment, or distorted development, out of degradation, brings the workers and peasants into direct conflict with their own capitalist class. It also requires measures which attack the capitalist class increasingly, posing the question of which class governs the country. It also directly lays the basis for socialism by needing, according to the logic of the national struggle, as the expropriaton of closed companies shows, to break increasingly with the capitalist economy and bringing the economy increasingly under the control of the working people, laying the basis for an increasingly planned economy.

But let’s look concretely at this in Venezuela. The struggle of the organized working class is often against the state bureaucracy, as Jorge Martin pointed out in his recent article on the planned expropriations, to win the right to co-manage the state-run enterprises and introduce workers control into private companies. Not expropriate private companies that are running at full production, but introduce the transitional measure of workers control. Trotsky says in the Transitional Program:

“[W]orkers control becomes a school for planned economy. On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalized industry when the hour for that eventuality strikes.”

“The task is one of reorganizing the whole system of production and distribution on a more dignified and workable basis. If the abolition of business secrets be a necessary condition to workers control, then control is the first step along the road to the socialist guidance of economy.”

Not a socialist measure, but a transitional measure. And a transitional measure that is posited within the need to develop the nation. Chávez offers any company a government loan to guarantee full or expanded production, on the condition that some measures of workers participation (obviously open as to what this means, but if implemented in a revolutionary way would amount to workers control) as part of the struggle to democratize Venezuela and draw the energy of the workers into carrying out endogenous development (national development aimed at solving the problems facing the masses, democratizing the economy to make this happen).

In this way the road to socialism is opened by the national struggle. We all want to see socialism in Venezuela—a democratically planned, socialized economy, and as Che said “either a socialist revolution or a caricature of a revolution,” but it is important to understand the course the struggle to make a socialist revolution is traveling on.

You cannot simply skip over the need to struggle [to solve] the immediate problems facing the masses, which are national problems, because it is through this struggle that the road to socialist revolution is, and has been, opened in Venezuela. This is inevitable and you can rail against it all you like. You can write however many different programs you like, but you can’t overcome this reality. Because this is the reality of the struggle for the mass of workers and urban and rural poor in Venezuela.  Through the struggle to break the hold of imperialism and develop and solve the problems the masses face, the poor come into conflict with the local capitalist class; the struggle develops the organizational capacity of the masses and deepens their consciousness.

This is precisely how we have come to the situation today, where socialism is now a nationwide discussion and has clearly been taken up enthusiastically by the revolutionary masses. The whole experience preceding this point has laid the groundwork. The whole experience of the last six years could not have been skipped over to get to where the Venezuelan working class is today. You can rail against it all you like, but it is the reality.

There are those who are willing to acknowledge the situation today, where socialism has been put firmly on the agenda and masses of workers have embraced it, and even acknowledge the role of Chávez in starting this discussion, but want to deny the link between this and what went before, because what went before didn’t seem radical enough. Lee Sustar’s article in Socialist Worker is a classic example. The Grantites said from the start the revolution had to go to socialism or it couldn’t deepen, it would be defeated. The revolution kept deepening despite their exhortations and they kept exhorting nonetheless. Then, when the revolution reaches a stage where socialism is put on the agenda, they cry “At last! This is what we said all along! This shows we were right!”

But it doesn’t. All it shows is that a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Because you can’t have the current opening up of the socialist stage—and it is still only the opening up—without the struggle that has preceded it. Not because of anything that Hugo Chávez has said or done but because of the objective development of mass consciousness.

Those who are sectarian toward Chávez, who tend to shout loudest about “self-organization of the workers” and about how socialism can’t come “from above,” nonetheless blame Chávez for not doing things that actually require the working class themselves to not just want them but to organize to make them happen. The workers haven’t clamored for a socialist economy. They clamored for the oil wealth to be used to solve the problems of poverty and underdevelopment. They increasingly started to clamor and fight for control over their workplaces, tied, very often, to the fact that the existing management was sabotaging the company or running it corruptly and inefficiently.

Socialism is not a government policy; Chávez cannot introduce it [merely by decree]. It is a transformation in the social relations of millions of people. And those millions of people have got to struggle to make it happen. The real value of the role of Chávez is his role in furthering this struggle, in responding to the radicalization of the masses, and helping to encourage and further that radicalization.

The objective potential for a socialist revolution in Venezuela is developing through the anti-imperialist struggle and out of it. The stage of struggling for a national revolution cannot be skipped over but determines the class struggle and lays the basis for the anti-imperialist struggle to grow over [into a socialist revolution]—as it is starting to now in Venezuela.