Take control of the Bolivarian revolution

Nick Rogers disputes Paul Hampton's assertion that the Chavez regime is Bonapartist and calls for a radical transfer of power to the working class

In my two articles last month on the Chávez regime in Venezuela I sought to understand the main social dynamics at work and to reveal the contradictions within the 'Bolivarian revolution'. My difference with Paul Hampton of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty, as I see it, is that he presents a one-dimensional picture of the political and social struggle that leads him to miss the potential for movement towards socialism. Crucially his analysis also hampers his ability to propose a line of action that might anticipate the dangers that confront the Venezuelan working class.

Comrade Hampton declares that Venezuela suffers under the Marxist category of Bonapartism in the here and now. I say that there are Bonapartist tendencies within the regime, but that the rapid increase in political space available to independent working class activity and the social gains made by the working class means that the current stage of political evolution can better be described a type of social democracy. However, I warn that unless the working class develops demands for a radical extension of political democracy alongside its social and economic programme, the danger of a reactionary reversal threatens - either from within the regime or from the bourgeois opposition and the United States.

Political freedom

In his most recent contribution, Paul Hampton sets out a critique of my interpretation of the concept of Bonapartism (Weekly Worker January 5). Apparently I disregard the role of the military, I am mistaken about the social basis of Bonapartism, and I disparage Trotsky, as well as generally misrepresenting Marx and Engels. I am also berated for ignoring too many of the classic texts. Readers will be relieved that I do not propose on this occasion to launch into a detailed survey of Bonapartism in the Marxist cannon. However, there are a couple of theses with respect to Bonapartism that I wish to defend and I do make a number of longish quotes from Marx and Engels to allow them speak in their own name.

I argue that the restriction of political freedom is a key aspect of Bonapartism. Paul Hampton identifies the organisation of the state "on strictly military lines" and "the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus" (quotes by Paul Hampton from Marx and Trotsky respectively) as central to Bonapartism.

The military services and police force are the key instruments of repression in the armoury of any state. But if comrade Hampton is insisting that Bonapartism is synonymous with a militarised regime that gains power either via a coup or the direct entry of the military or police into politics, I think he is being too restrictive. Certainly, as his quotes demonstrate, Marx and Engels were thinking in these terms when discussing the France of Napoleon III or the Germany of Bismarck. Trotsky also speaks about "the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus". However, in my opinion Bonapartism is a useful theoretical framework for discussing a wide range of regimes.

The plethora of one-party states in the post-independence colonial world, where trade unions and working class organisations were absorbed into corporatist structures, spring to mind. These were by no means necessarily military regimes, nor regimes in which military figures played any political role. Nor was the Mexican presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40), cited by Paul Hampton, which solidified the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, a military regime.

But even in those classic Bonapartist regimes where the military and police do play a pivotal role, the state's control of bodies of armed men serves the purpose of increasing its ability to function independently of the rest of society. And it does this very specifically by restricting the political rights of both the bourgeoisie and the working class - and all other social classes.

Engels, in his 1865 pamphlet, The Prussian military question and the German workers' party, elaborates on this aspect of Bonapartism. Writing specifically about France, he states: "It goes without saying that the form which this rule took was military despotism ... The characteristic role of Bonapartism vis-á-vis workers and capitalists is to prevent the two classes from engaging in open struggle. It protects the bourgeoisie from violent attack by the workers ... and it robs both of all trace of political power. It does not tolerate free association, free assembly or a free press; it allows universal suffrage, but under such bureaucratic pressures that it is almost impossible to vote for an opposition candidate; it rules by means of a police system which is hitherto unprecedented even in police-ridden France."

I argue that it is the squeezing of the political space available to the main social actors, rather than the formal mechanism by which this is achieved, that primarily defines Bonapartism. This is relevant to the analysis of the current political situation in Venezuela. Comrade Hampton is absolutely correct about the involvement of military figures in Chávez's regime, the way in which the army was deployed to deliver social programmes in the Plan Bolivar, and Chávez's support for the concept of a "civilian-military alliance". I discussed this at length in my original article (Weekly Worker December 1 2005), making the point that the concept of the caudillo is a significant aspect of Chávez's politics. Another aspect is that of the left which turned to guerrilla politics in the 1960s and re-entered civilian life in the 70s only to cultivate radical elements in the military, including Chávez.

Comrade Hampton cites examples where the army has played a repressive role during Chávez's presidency: against protesting indigenous Pémon people during the construction of the Venezuela-Brazil electricity supply line; allegations of repression against the victims of the December 1999 mudslides; and the firing of rubber bullets by national guardsmen during a steelworkers' strike. Serious as these incidents were, there is no indication they were centrally ordered and they have not developed into a general pattern of behaviour.

On the contrary, comrade Hampton does not dispute that both working class and bourgeois organisations operate with a remarkable degree of freedom, engaging in an all too "open struggle" that hardly speaks of a Bonapartist "despotism". While this is the case, trends towards Bonapartism remain latent and other political tendencies, such as the growth of independent working class activity, can continue to strive for supremacy.

Social base

Paul Hampton also takes me to task for my comment that in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte "Marx identified the peasantry as the mass social base of Louis Napoleon's rule" (Weekly Worker December 15 2005). Earlier he interprets my measured tones as "haughty condescension". Unfortunately, his own valiant attempts at condescension fall rather flat. For comrade Hampton would appear only to have glanced at the Eighteenth Brumaire.

It is true that Marx says that Louis Napoleon "constitutes himself chief of the lumpen proletariat". It was this social class, colourfully described as "vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged criminals, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, confidence tricksters ... pickpockets, sleight-of-hand experts, gamblers ... brothel keepers, porters, pen-pushers, organ-grinders, rag-and-bone merchants, knife-grinders, tinkers, and beggars", which provided the shock troops for Louis Napoleon's political organisation, the Society of December 10 (K Marx, 'Surveys from exile' Political writings Vol 2, p197).

However, in Marx's view the peasantry underpins the regime's social and political stability: "Only under the second Bonaparte does the state seem to have attained a completely autonomous position ... But the state power does not hover in mid-air. Bonaparte represents a class, indeed he represents the most numerous class of French society, the small peasant proprietors" (ibid p238).

Comrade Hampton has not read The Prussian military question and the German workers' party (F Engels, 1865) any more closely. He quotes the phrase "imperial proletariat" from the work, asserting that it proves "Engels was even more explicit about the working class base of Bismarck's Bonapartism". In fact Engels is discussing the "colossal public works"" in Louis Napoleon's France by means of which "a part of the workers are nothing short of bought" ('The First International and after' Political writings Vol 3, p139).

Just a paragraph earlier Engels is emphasising the importance of the peasantry in Bonapartist rule: "Bonapartism is the necessary form of government in a country where the working class - highly developed in the towns, but outnumbered by the small peasants on the land - has been defeated in a great revolutionary struggle by the capitalist class, the petty bourgeoisie and the army. When the Parisian workers were defeated in the tremendous struggle of June 1848 the bourgeoisie, too, completely exhausted itself in achieving its victory. It was aware that it could not survive a second such victory. It ruled only in name; it was too weak to rule in reality. Leadership was assumed by the army, the actual victor in the struggle; it was supported by the class from which it recruited its strength, the small farmers, who wanted peace and protection from the town rowdies."

Now there is no question that Bonapartist regimes classically seek to incorporate the working class. Bismarck is a clear example of this, introducing wide-ranging social policies at the same time as he enforced the anti-socialist laws. That is exactly the point I made about such regimes and the working class: "A fine balance must be struck between cooption and repression." But equally the working class provides a shaky social basis for any bourgeois regime: "concessions to the working class threaten to increase its self-confidence and social strength" (both from Weekly Worker December 15 2005).

A mass class, such as the peasantry, which, as Marx says, is "incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name", provides a more solid social base from which to make overtures to other social classes (K Marx, 'Surveys from exile' Political writings Vol 2, p239). In this respect I cited the role of the petty bourgeoisie in Trotsky's analysis of the rise of Hitler (it is thus a little odd that comrade Hampton claims that I ignore Trotsky's writings on the 1930s).

Indeed Engels describes how Bismarck's regime in the 1860s leans for support on a rural working class that is oppressed by feudal social obligations: "Patriarchal rule on the old feudal estates has made the landless day-labourer hereditarily dependent upon his 'noble lord' ... The agricultural proletariat is that section of the working class which is the last to become aware of its interests and social position ... It is that section of the working class which remains longest the unconscious tool of an exploiting and privileged class" ('The First International and after' Political writings Vol 3, p141).

Comrade Hampton mystifyingly accuses me of disparaging Trotsky. I presume this refers to my discussion of Trotsky's special case of Bonapartism. Trotsky suggested that in underdeveloped countries the absence of a strong bourgeoisie forces bourgeois regimes to either suppress the working class in alliance with foreign imperialism or take the side of the working class in an attempt to build a national capitalism. It is precisely the central role of the working class that is 'special' about the political configuration that Trotsky is discussing. I observed that this was not "a fully-fledged theoretical analysis of the same pedigree as classical Bonapartism". This can hardly be disputed. Trotsky discusses the concept in a short, undated and unsigned article that was only attributed to him after his death. Nevertheless, the line of thought has merit, although I think the reservations I expressed are valid.

However, if this version of Bonapartism is to be applied to Venezuela today, I repeat that it is necessary to discuss the relative strengths of the bourgeoisie and the working class, the objectives of the bourgeoisie's neoliberal project (which Chávez has overturned), and the role of the United States. Paul Hampton simply does not do this. He says that a national capitalism developed in Venezuela after World War II. Is he saying, though, that the Venezuelan bourgeoisie remained dependent on US capital and that this was retarding economic development? And that a 'Bonapartist' Chávez had to break with the existing bourgeoisie and orientate towards the working class in order to serve the objective interests of Venezuelan national capitalism? That is the logic of Trotsky's special case of Bonapartism: the state forms an alliance with the working class to combat neo-colonialism and a comprador bourgeoisie. I still have my doubts that this perspective is compatible with the AWL's view of global capitalism and the role of US capital in the current era.

Social democracy

I argue that Venezuela provides an example of a special kind of social democracy. Although working class forces and social democrats are involved in the government, Chávez's principal organisation, the MVR, is a coalition of very disparate forces (and I certainly do not call for workers to support it). Comrade Hampton provides a useful service in pointing to the elements of the bourgeoisie (although a small minority of that class) who back Chávez. What makes the current phase of the 'Bolivarian revolution' social democratic is the very real influence an increasingly self-confident working class exerts on the direction of government policy through organisations such as the UNT and the grassroots organisations that have sprung up in communities and workplaces.

Despite the conflicting tendencies within Venezuela, does comrade Hampton really suggest that the Brazilian working class - with the social democratic Lula and Workers Party in office - is in a stronger position within their society than the Venezuelan working class is in 'Bonapartist' Venezuela? Or that, given Acción Democrática's organic links with the CTV and membership of the social democratic Socialist International, the empowerment of the Venezuelan working class was better served by the AD governments of the Punto Fijo period than the 'Bolivarian revolution'?

The role of the working class was very different in the early stages of Chávez's presidency. Then the organised working class was held captive by the CTV and Chávez's support was based on primarily unorganised workers, living in shanty towns and employed in the informal economy. Many would have been engaged in the kind of economic activities Marx ascribes to the mid-19th century lumpenproletariat. Active participation by these sectors in politics was very low. This was probably when the Bonapartist tendencies within the Chávez regime were strongest. The response by the poor masses to the coup of April 2002 - reinforced by the forces that came together to defeat the bosses' lock-out later that year - changed all that.

But, as comrade Hampton correctly warns, complacency is enormously dangerous. The current conjuncture of opportunities and threats in Venezuela is critical. If the current national assembly removes the restriction on Chávez standing a third time for the presidency in 2012 without a radical transfer of political power away from the presidency to the working class, the creation of an "institutionalised" revolution beckons. Then Chávez really would have played the role of a Cárdenas.

The formation of a revolutionary socialist party well grounded in the working class is essential. The soon to be launched Party of Revolution and Socialism (PRS) may prove to just such a formation. Its political declaration is an excellent survey of the contradictions within the Venezuelan politics (see www.internationalviewpoint.org/article.php3?id_article=891).

Comrade Hampton supports the PRS. But he is wrong about its orientation to the 'Bolivarian revolution'. Although it is scathing about the character of the government parties, it expresses support for the "great advances and successes" of the "revolutionary process". It makes demands on Chávez and calls for the social missions to be given a stronger role. It repeatedly calls for the revolutionary process to be "deepened".

In other words, its programme is for the working class to take "control of the Bolivarian revolution".