Bonapartism or social democracy?

Paul Hampton of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty replies to Nick Rogers and upholds what he calls 'independent working class politics'

The substance of my disagreement with Nick Rogers over Venezuela is that I characterise the Chávez government as Bonapartist, whereas he believes it is social democratic (see Weekly Worker December 15). My view leads to independent working class politics - Rogers’ leads to its dissolution.

There is a real debate to be had on this issue, aside from Rogers’ haughty condescension towards the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. However, the discussion does not take place in a vacuum. Much of the left, in the unions (eg, the TUC congress resolution), in the anti-capitalist movement and amongst Marxists (eg, Socialist Appeal, the Socialist Workers Party) - are soft on Chávez. Desperate for something to cling to in these lean times, they exaggerate his leftwing credentials. Many behave as little more than exogenous mouthpieces for Venezuelan foreign policy.

In this context, the serious left has a duty to say what is and warn the working class about the nature and evolution of Chávez’s rule. Clarity is vital for working class politics. But this is precisely where Rogers has erred.


Rogers’ first mistake is to misrepresent Marx and Engels on Bonapartism. He ignores many of their writings in the 1850s on Louis Napoleon and what they wrote about others, such as Bolivar and Bismarck.

Marx and Engels understood that Bonapartism was a government in which the bourgeoisie forfeited its political rule to maintain its social domination. It involved “the most extraordinary centralisation” of the state, which acquired “an ubiquity, an omniscience, a capacity for accelerated mobility”, balancing between classes (‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ MECW Vol 11, p139). It gave the state a degree of financial autonomy (‘The French Credit Mobilier’ MECW Vol 15) and what Engels later called “the semblance of independence in relation to society” (‘Housing question’ MECW Vol 23, p363).

Engels generalised the argument, analysing Germany under Bismarck. He wrote: “A Bonapartist semi-dictatorship is the normal form; it promotes the great material interests of the bourgeoisie even against the bourgeoisie” (Letter to Marx MECW Vol 42, p266).

But the distinctive element of Bonapartism, disregarded by Rogers, is the role of the military. Engels recognised this aspect of Louis Napoleon as early as December 1851, when he speculated about whether “the Praetorian regime”, “an extensive state organised on strictly military lines”, would consolidate its rule and “proclaim the army the only saviour of society” (Letter to Marx MECW Vol 38, pp505, 513).

Marx made the same point. Under Bonapartism, “the army is to maintain its own rule, personated by its own dynasty, over the French people in general. It is to represent the state in antagonism to the society” (‘Rule of the Praetorians’ MECW Vol 15, p465).

Rogers is also wrong about the social basis of Bonapartism. He argues Louis Napoleon’s rule rested only on the peasantry. He ignores Marx’s comment that Louis Napoleon “constitutes himself chief of the lumpen proletariat” (‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ MECW Vol 11, p149), or about “the newly-established workshops and other attempts to purchase the conscience of the French working classes” (‘Bonaparte’s present position’ MECW Vol15, p478).

Engels was even more explicit about the working class base of Bismarck’s Bonapartism, referring to the “imperial proletariat” (‘The Prussian military question and the German workers’ party MECW Vol 20, pp72-73), the “bodyguard proletariat” and the “Bonapartist building trades’ proletariat dependent on the government” (‘Housing question’ MECW Vol 23, pp364-5).

Rogers disparages Trotsky, ignoring his use of Bonapartism to explain events in Germany and France in the 1930s. In fact Trotsky’s definition captures the essence very well: “By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate - in order to preserve its possessions - the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘saviour’ … the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions” (‘Again on the question of Bonapartism’ Writings 1934-35 pp206-07).

Trotsky also anticipated many of Rogers’ objections to Bonapartism. He wrote: “The fact is that Marx and Engels wrote not only of the Bonapartism of the two Bonapartes, but also of other species. Beginning, it seems, with the year 1864, they more than once likened the national regime of Bismarck to French Bonapartism. And this in spite of the fact that Bismarck was not a pseudo-radical demagogue and, so far as we know, was not supported by the peasantry. The Iron Chancellor was not raised to power as the result of a plebiscite, but was duly appointed by his legitimate and hereditary king. And nevertheless Marx and Engels were right. Bismarck made use in a Bonapartist fashion of the antagonism between the propertied classes and the rising proletariat, overcoming in this way the antagonism within the two propertied classes, between the junkerdom and the bourgeoisie, and raised a military-police apparatus over the nation” (‘German Bonapartism’ The struggle against fascism in Germany p332).

Trotsky’s characterisation of Bonapartism in Mexico is valuable because he grasped the dynamics of the regime. His predictions were accurate - Cárdenas did coopt and then repress the workers’ movement. Latin American Marxists have subsequently used the concept to understand regimes such as Peron in Argentina or Chávez’s hero, Velasco, in Peru.

Rogers may not like the idea of Bonapartism, but he might at least represent the notion faithfully if he wants to criticise it.

One aside. Rogers makes a crass point, alleging my view of Bonapartism contradicts the AWL’s analysis of imperialism. Far from it. Bonapartism facilitates a degree of national capitalist development in backward countries. This actually supports our view of the tendencies of capitalism (more than simply dependency and stagnation). It is what happened after World War II in parts of Asia and Latin America, including Venezuela.

Bonapartism in Venezuela

Rogers denies that the current regime in Venezuela is Bonapartist. Yet Chávez’s government balances between classes, with the military central to his rule. Chávez is a career soldier, with 20 years of active service and this conditions his politics. Middle-ranking officers established his MBR-200 organisation. In 1992 he tried to seize power through a military coup.

But the argument is not merely about origins: Chávez has militarised politics in Venezuela. There are a large number of military personnel in civilian positions - perhaps 800 senior government jobs and nine state governors (out of 23) held by officers.

In interviews with sympathetic journalists such as Gott and Harnecker, Chávez is quite upfront about his “civilian-military alliance”. His constitution substantially increased the role of the army in politics and society, maintaining “internal order” and as “an active participant in national development” (eg, the Plan Bolivar). If this is not “the rule of the praetorians” I do not know what is.

The limited use of repression up until now is no reason for complacency. Chávez has used his military-police apparatus against workers and others (see Jonah Gindin’s reports on the Venezuelanalysis website and Michael McCaughan’s book). He will use repression against a militant working class movement. To downplay this is to make a mockery of Marxism.

Rogers makes a nonsensical claim that the Venezuelan bourgeoisie is “missing” from my analysis. If he bothered to read what I have written about the 2002 coup and the lockout (at the time and since), my hostility towards the bourgeois opposition and their US backers would be obvious. Evidently many Venezuelan capitalists oppose Chávez.

The problem for Rogers is that some sections of business actually support Chávez. According to Daniel Hellinger, an academic sympathetic to Chávez, insurance companies, PR firms, developers and bankers have backed him, as well as agro-industrialists, airline owners and small business organisations like Fedeindustria.

As Venezuelan socialist Gonzalo Gomez told the American International Socialist Organization recently, “The government supports the development of a certain sector of business and finds political support within this same sector. These businesses receive thousands of dollars in government assistance, yet the government does not require them to improve working conditions, respect union rights and not violate collective bargaining.”

Chávez welcomes foreign investment and boasts in Fortune magazine about doing “good business” with multinationals like Shell. He promises business he will avert social “explosions”. He defends private property, promotes Venezuelan capital, both state and private, through his ‘Made in Venezuela’ policy. In short he rules in favour of sections of capital.

Social democracy

Rogers argues that Chávez is a social democrat, because he is opposed by many bourgeois, has increased welfare spending and has some support from the left. I think this is superficial and wrong.

Like Bonapartists, social democrats are not straightforward bourgeois parties but still rule in the interests of the bourgeoisie. But what is distinctive about social democracy is that the particular forces that govern come from the workers’ movement.

Social democracy is in some sense of the labour movement. It is bound up with the trade union bureaucracy and with MPs. Lula in Brazil is an example. He heads a bourgeois government, but is of the labour movement - both personally as a former militant and because of the PT.

That is simply not the case with Chávez and his movement. He has incorporated some of the old social democratic left - such as the MAS and the LCR (now PPT). But they do not define his politics.

The difference comes down to the class character of the Chávez regime. I say it is ultimately bourgeois. Rogers seems to think it is in some way working class.

Despite his apparent discovery of social democracy in Venezuela, Rogers does not discuss the actual tendencies within the labour movement or the attitude of Chávez towards them.

Within the UNT union confederation there are clear divisions between the pro-Chávez trade unionists (the FBT), the old reformist leaders from the CTV and the class struggle currents. Yet Rogers does not consider this worthy of mention. Nor does he discuss issues such as the minimum wage, the anti-union laws or the lack of elections within the UNT - where militants and socialists disagree with the government.

It is clear that Chávez is attempting to coopt the UNT in typical Bonapartist fashion. His government sponsors conferences (eg, on co-management) and intervenes in disputes. It hosts visiting delegations from British unions and cultivates socialist intellectuals.

The job of Marxists is to warn of these dangers. Yet Rogers’ articles are essentially pleas of consolation. He chastises me for being harsh on Chávez. Instead Rogers softens and soothes. In short he blunts the entirely necessary criticism that Marxists provide in contrast to the prevailing leftwing common sense.

Political conclusions

The real significance of these differences are revealed by the political conclusions.

The politics that flow from Bonapartism are clear. Fight for the UNT to be an independent trade union movement. Build class struggle fractions within the unions. Form an independent workers’ party. Working class candidates in opposition to the MVR in elections. For a workers’ government. No trust or confidence in Chávez. Warn workers about cooption and repression. These demands are not simply abstract in Venezuela today. They are the lines along which the Party of Revolution (PRS) is developing.

By contrast, Rogers descends into incoherence. He says: “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.”

Rogers transforms Chávez into a locum workers’ leader, ignoring the fact that he “holds up” working class self-emancipation every day. Without specifying its class character, Rogers substitutes the “Bolivarian revolution” for the workers’ movement, and urges the Venezuelan working class to “take control” of it, rather than create their own movement.

If this means anything concrete, it implies that socialists should join the MVR and vote for it. Rogers’ designation of Chávez as a social democrat suggests this conclusion, though he shies away from saying so explicitly. But to back the MVR would blight working class political independence.

Rogers effectively shackles Venezuelan workers to Chávez. The AWL wants workers to fight for their own interests. The choice is clear: Bonapartist or social democrat. Working class politics or subordination to Chávez.