Chávez and the AWL

Nick Rogers replies to Paul Hampton from the Alliance of Workers' Liberty

Political and social flux is the key feature of the current political process in Venezuela. Any attempt to assign a definitive assessment of the 'Bolivarian revolution' will have to await the outcome of the clash of social forces - the impact of which is reverberating around the Americas. What is possible for now is an assessment of the balance within the struggle between the classes and the sketching out of the main lines of political development. The priority, of course, is to establish the main tasks confronting socialists. The Alliance for Workers' Liberty's Paul Hampton (Letters, December 8) takes issue with my analysis (Weekly Worker December 1) and particularly my conclusion that at the current stage of the political process "an attempt is being made in Venezuela to fashion a version of social democracy". Stung by my reference to the "lazy" application of the charge of Bonapartism by some socialists, which he considers "a nasty little jibe", he goes on to reply in kind. Bonapartism What is the essence of comrade Hampton's justification for characterising president Hugo Chávez and his government as Bonapartist? One, that the regime operates in the interests of the bourgeoisie because Chávez seeks to build a national capitalism that can stand up to the United States. And, two, that the army is no longer a tool of the bourgeoisie because Chávez has closed off the option of a coup d'etat against him - hence Trotsky's definition of Bonapartism as the "uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over" the bourgeoisie is applicable. These seem to me very thin grounds for deploying the single theoretical prism of Bonapartism to assess the dynamics of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela. For in no capitalist regime does the state serve as an unambiguous 'executive committee' of the bourgeoisie. In all capitalist societies the state mediates to one degree or another between capitalists, who are everywhere a minority class, and the rest of society. Different factions within the capitalist class will propose conflicting political strategies and appeal for support to other social classes. The representatives of other social classes will actually be incorporated into state structures and elements of the political programme of these social classes will be implemented. Surely the lesson of 20th century social democracy is that the capitalist state is capable of enormous flexibility. It allowed representatives of the organisations of the class that has the potential to deal the final death blow to capitalism to enter corridors of power. Politically the bourgeoisie is often enormously hostile to such governments and nearly always throws its financial and propaganda support behind other parties. Yet on no occasion has a social democratic regime come even close to overthrowing capitalism. Nowhere, for that matter, has the programme of social democracy in office seriously sought to break with capitalism. So, like Bonapartism, social democracy is a regime that largely excludes the political representatives of the bourgeoisie from political office, while pursuing a programme that serves to incorporate the working class into bourgeois society - "to prevent explosions", as Trotsky puts it with regard to Bonapartism. Marx invented the theoretical tool of Bonapartism to solve a particularly problem. In the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), Marx seeks to explain a regime that had seized power in a military coup and broken with the form of rule advocated by the most advanced members of the bourgeoisie. The components of the form of bourgeois rule that Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew had dispensed with included parliamentary representation, the division of state powers - ie, the separation of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary - and freedom of the press and of expression. In other words, it had broken with what might be called the "norms of bourgeois constitutional rule". Marx was aware that down the broad sweep of history the bourgeoisie has fought on its own account for parliamentary representation and a law-based regime. This framework created the political environment in which the bourgeoisie could best foster the development of capitalism and subjugate the ruling classes that preceded it. Crucially, it also provided an arena in which different capitals could compete (achieving reconciliation or the victory one over the other) without threatening the bourgeois system as a whole. In the absence of parliamentary or legal safeguards, a Marcos or a Mobutu is able to establish a stranglehold not just over political, but also over economic, life. Of course, it was the struggle of the working class for universal suffrage and the right to organise as a class that in the 20th century made such a 'constitutional' arrangement virtually synonymous with the paltry democratic rights that much of the left mistakenly labels 'bourgeois democracy'. Marx concluded that the bourgeoisie would jettison the political regime that it had itself fought to construct and accept the rule of an authoritarian figure in the face of a crisis that endangered bourgeois society. Usually when the working class was threatening to take power. In Marx's own words, "... the extra-parliamentary mass of the bourgeoisie invited Bonaparte to suppress and annihilate its speaking and writing part, its politicians and intellectuals, its platforms and press ."¦It hoped that it would then be able to pursue its private affairs with full confidence under the protection of a strong and unrestricted government." In Venezuela over the last seven years, in sharp contrast, "the speaking and writing part" of the bourgeoisie has never been more vociferous, but has remained unsuppressed by the government it opposes. And, far from pursuing "its private affairs", between 2001 and 2003 in a desperate bid to overthrow Chávez most of Venezuela's capitalist class repeatedly brought its money-making activities to a halt in a series of strikes and lockouts. Importantly, Marx identified the peasantry as the mass social base of Louis Napoleon's rule (not "the peasants and workers", as comrade Hampton claims). Later Trotsky was to identify the German petty bourgeoisie as the social prop of the Hitler regime. The significance of these classes is that, given the nature of their economic existence, they are "incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name" (Marx, ibid) and are particularly susceptible to the lure of a messianic leader. Nevertheless, the acquiescence of the mass of the bourgeoisie, if not the bourgeois writers and politicians who felt the edge of Louis Napoleon's sword, defined the historic role of the regime - to save capitalism. Any attempt to base a bourgeois regime on the working class poses obvious problems. Unlike the petty bourgeoisie or peasantry, the working class is eminently capable of ruling in its own right. Concessions to the working class threaten to increase its self-confidence and social strength. A fine balance must be struck between cooption and repression. Special case Comrade Hampton cites a special category of Bonapartism that Trotsky analysed in Mexico in the 1930s under the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, where the oil industry and railways were nationalised and forms of workers' control established. Trotsky argued that in underdeveloped countries where foreign capital was the predominant social force and the domestic bourgeoisie was very weak the working class could be relatively strong. A capitalist government had two choices: to take the side of foreign capitalism and suppress the working class; or, by getting the working class onside, to gain the political and social space within which to establish a project of national capitalism. Trotsky described both types of regimes as "Bonapartism sui generis" (of a special character), the government of Cárdenas falling into the latter camp (Trotsky Nationalised industry and workers' management 1939). Trotsky's special case of Bonapartism is hardly a fully-fledged theoretical analysis of the same pedigree as classical Bonapartism. The concept describes the predicament facing bourgeois governments in countries where the social and economic forces are weak. It, therefore, describes the circumstances in which a Bonapartist state might substitute itself for the bourgeoisie and push through a process of state-led economic development, while seeking to coopt the working class. For that matter a genuine workers' state that implemented a range of social reforms before falling victim to counterrevolution might play a similar historic role. But Trotsky's analysis is much less useful when it comes to distinguishing between the range of bourgeois responses to underdevelopment and imperialist subjugation (and providing a theoretical understanding of them). What type of bourgeois government in Trotsky's scenario is not Bonapartist? Is it not also a little odd to find the AWL promoting a conceptual framework that presupposes the pernicious impact of foreign imperialism on the development of national capitalism? Is this compatible with Martin Thomas's theory of the 'imperialism of free trade' in the contemporary world, in which the United States plays the role of repairing tears in the fabric of international capitalism? Whatever Paul Hampton thinks of Martin Thomas's strictures on imperialism, he fails to properly incorporate Trotsky's alternative version of Bonapartism into his analysis of Venezuela (see Solidarity November 3 and November 17). Where, for instance, is his discussion of the comparative strengths of US and Venezuelan capitalism or the standing of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie? Comrade Hampton does narrate the history of the National Union of Workers (UNT), launched in August 2003 in opposition to the long-standing Confederation of Venezuelan Trade Unions (CTV). But the rise of genuinely independent trade unionism in Venezuela over the last three years hardly supports a Bonapartist thesis. For, contrary to the Mexico Trotsky analysed in the 1930s, before the 'Bonapartist' Chávez, it was the Venezuelan working class that was socially dominated by the national bourgeoisie. The CTV was strongly allied with Democratic Action (AD), one of the main parties of government. Even after the collapse of the old system of political alternation between AD and COPEI, the CTV accepted the neoliberal measures imposed by the Caldera government of the 1990s, including 'reforms' of Venezuela's labour laws and moves to privatise the oil industry. And since 1998, as the bourgeois opposition has mobilised hundreds of thousands on the streets, the CTV has participated in each opposition action. The subservience of the CTV hardly speaks of a bourgeoisie that is socially insignificant or incapable of pursuing its own political project. That project is neoliberalism - designed across Latin America to enlarge the scope of profit-generating economic activity, reduce social spending and constrain, if not cripple, working class organisation. Comrade Hampton's one passing reference to neoliberalism declares it a failure that has undermined the credibility of the traditional ruling elite. Certainly Latin America is in political turmoil - in no small part due to Hugo Chávez's resistance to the neoliberal agenda. But the presidencies of Lula in Brazil, Kirchner in Argentina and Gutierrez in Ecuador indicate that throughout much of the continent the bourgeoisie is able to impose its will even on those elected to oppose neoliberalism. Comrade Hampton sketches a strangely static perspective in which one of several possible lines of political development (Bonapartism) is presented as a current reality. And one of the protagonists in the class struggle (the bourgeoisie) is almost entirely absent. But the last seven years have witnessed an upsurge of political self-expression by the working class - in shantytown communities, in workers' committees and trade unions, and in the struggle for land reform - and a proliferation of new working class organisations. Comrade Hampton fails to locate the origins of this transformation. Working class combativeness is both a product of the measures of the Chávez government and a response to the fierce opposition of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. Above all, the new constitution and the new democratic openings have been exploited by both the opposition and the working class. Comrade Hampton regards my emphasis on the lack of political repression as "juridical cretinism", but Venezuela's open political environment has been crucial to the ability of the working class to engage in independent political activity. The cases of the repressive use of military force that comrade Hampton mentions do not seem to prove a significant tendency - two took place in the early years of Chávez's presidency; the other was a localised event. If he were to discuss them in any detail in his own writings he might be able to make a stronger case. The strengthening of the role of the working class in Venezuela's political and social life is the key to my definition of the current stage of the political process as social democracy of a special kind (sui generis, if you like). The principal feature is not the cooption of the working class into a bourgeois regime, but rather its emergence as a powerful social player in its own right. The government, including those parties of the working class that are in the governing coalition, has not broken with a perspective of social reform within capitalism. Even as he talks of 'socialism of the 21st century', Chávez reassures Venezuelan business people that they have nothing to fear if they are not corrupt and treat their workers well. But in 2005 for the first time the government has begun to nationalise firms that are occupied by their workers and introduce a range of different versions of workers' co-management. The process contains many contradictions. Some state managers suggest that workers' co-management removes the need for trade union representation. Ministries hamper the initiatives emerging from the social missions. Regional governors act as a bureaucratic block to progressive measures. Neither worker nor community participation in the administration of the oil industry - the single most important economic sector in Venezuela - is even considered. The financial sector remains in private hands. But there is no question that the level of working class struggle is reaching new heights. And that the degree of proactive support from within government is unprecedented in Latin America. As the political declaration of the Party of Revolution and Socialism, to be launched next year, puts it, before going on to enumerate the shortcomings in the Bolivarian revolution: "We "¦ are conscious of the great advances and successes won through tenacious struggle over the past six years of the revolutionary process." Nonetheless, there are Bonapartist tendencies within the political process that indicate one of the possible resolutions of the social struggle in Venezuela. The enormous concentration of executive powers in the presidency enables Chávez to govern without an effective party organisation - making co-option of the working class problematic - but it also means that the future direction of Venezuelan politics rest too heavily on the whim of one man. And his ability to avoid assassination. Democracy Comrade Hampton may be startled by my call for a sixth republic, but demands for an extension of democracy at the highest levels of the state have a leverage over the political dynamic that purely economic demands lack. Comrade Hampton in his letter explicitly calls for opposition to Chávez. A position that he does not make clear in his articles. But what forms does he propose this opposition should take? Would he have called for a vote against Chávez in last year's recall referendum - or an abstention? Does he really think it makes no difference to the prospects for the working class whether Chávez or the opposition takes office? In fact comrade Hampton calls for little more than trade union work. I suppose, when appropriate, comrade Hampton may raise the question of revolution in the abstract. But dual power does not reign in Venezuela. Community and workplace organisations have not created representative structures even at the local level that might form the basis of a workers' state. However, the whole of the Venezuelan working class is very well versed in the rights set out in Bolivarian constitution of the fifth republic. After the opposition withdrew, this month's national assembly elections saw a clean sweep for parties supporting Chávez, giving them the option of rewriting the constitution. It seems likely that the bar on Chávez standing in 2012 (six years after the 2006 presidential elections he is expected to win) will be removed. The dangers of ossification are manifest. It is then that the question of who controls the army will be decisive. Chávez should be supported when he implements progressive measures and opposed when he holds up the process of working class emancipation. But the overriding demand should be that the working class, the huge majority of Venezuelan society, takes control of the Bolivarian revolution. In place of the continual re-election of Chávez, a national assembly that possesses executive as well as legislative authority and with each deputy subject to immediate recall. As part of a process of democratisation throughout Venezuelan society, a sixth republic could take Venezuela to the cusp of working class rule and then beyond.