When political will is mixed with oil

A key lesson of the Venezuelan experience has been the way it transcends the limiting notion of a difference between reform and revolution, argues Iain Bruce


The Real Venezuela: Making
Socialism in the 21st Century

Iain Bruce
2008, Pluto Press
216 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IF LAST month’s victory by Hugo Chávez in a referendum to scrap limits on how often politicians can run for office demonstrated anything, it is the Venezuelan leader’s remarkable comeback power.

The vote effectively reversed the result of a constitutional referendum in December 2007 that had included a proposal to allow the president to run indefinitely for office in which voters had dealt Chávez’s agenda its first serious setback since he came to power 10 years ago.

That a divided and increasingly irrelevant opposition bleated so loudly this time round about how unfair the victory had been, given huge government funding and blanket state television coverage, now seems irrelevant alongside the significance of Chávez’s rebound. For the result, which paves the way for him to stay in office beyond the end of his current, second six-year term in 2012, represented a strong endorsement of the “Bolivarian” revolution’s socialist agenda that Chávez was seeking a decade after coming to power.

It is hardly surprising that, after the result was announced, the Venezuelan leader shouted from the balcony of the presidential palace: “The doors of the future are wide open”.

Iain Bruce’s study of the concrete achievements of this revolution help to explain why the Chávez phenomenon now seems unstoppable, with even a Washington under new management forced to soften its rhetoric about the Venezuelan leadership’s differing interpretation about what is democratic and what is not.

Bruce’s The Real Venezuela is an essential introduction to the social achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution and its position within current socialist debates. It explores the key transformations in the economy, workplace democracy, education, and community engagement that have turned Caracas into a place of pilgrimage for the international left.

Place of pilgrimage

Bruce reveals through accessible prose that is, nonetheless, never blinded by his enthusiasm for both the country and the man himself, the truly popular dimension of the changes that Chávez has been pursuing. The impressive success rates of “missions” to eradicate illiteracy and bring public health to millions of neglected people, for example, allow even neutral observers to challenge with hard facts the propaganda of the Venezuelan leadership’s many enemies. In October 2004, for example, the government calculated that its adult literacy programme had taught 1,314,788 Venezuelans to read and write in less than a year and a half, and a year later UNESCO certified the country free from illiteracy.

Such programmes were made possible by a reassertion of state control over the oil company PDVSA that, despite its apparent public status, had over the years forged a symbiotic relationship outside of state control with the greedy foreign oil corporations that benefited from, and no doubt encouraged, the complacency of its bureaucratic elite. It was the legislation to reassert direct state control over PDVSA that fuelled the attempted coup in 2002 – that almost certainly had the support of US military attaches and the CIA in Caracas – which was largely foiled by popular mobilisation on the streets of Caracas by people from the poor shantytowns who had seen genuine improvements in their lives under Chávez. Once the PDVSA elite had been removed, the assertion of government control combined with rising world oil prices filled public coffers to enable the creation of expansive social programmes.

Bruce employs the Venezuelan experience – in particular, the unusual interaction between Chávez and the people, and the role of the urban poor in social change – as a way of drawing attention to the shortcomings of existing socialist theories. The author writes:

“This ‘encounter’ between a number of centralised policies issuing from above, essentially from the president, and a diverse field of initiatives bubbling up from below – has been one of the most enduring, and enigmatic, features of the Bolivarian experience. We need to try very hard to understand both sides of this combination, between Chávez and the Venezuelan poor. Equally importantly, we need to try to understand what happens when the two intersect. The mainstream portraits of a maverick caudillo throwing around Venezuela’s oil revenues in irresponsible populist gestures, or worse still, deliberately buying up popular support, utterly fail to do this.” [p. 38]

Nowhere do the contradictions between old socialist forms and the potential for new ways of doing things become more evident than in the chequered experiments with co-management and workplace democracy at ALCASA, the large aluminium plant. As Bruce points out, the experience with workers’ control differed from European, social-democratic versions of co-management by pointing not to co-option within existing structures in workplaces still being run by employers or owners, but to real control of the workforce in key areas in a context in which old elites had been partially displaced from central sites of governmental or administrative power. Nonetheless, Venezuela’s experience of co-management and workers’ control repeated old antagonisms in a new form – in terms of conflict between the new structures and old institutions, even if the latter were themselves inhabited by chavistas.

Bruce explores Venezuela’s exhilirating experiments with direct democracy – perhaps one of the most important areas in which Latin America more generally has contributed to debates about the role of politics and the form of the state in the contemporary era – to ask wider questions about the possibilities for the modern Left.

He asks how Venezuela can inform debates about the key question facing the Left across the world pertaining to the restructuring of “working-class” experience and the grounded identity of class more generally. To what extent does the Venezuelan experience support hypotheses suggesting new forms of political identity based on territory, gender, ethnicity etc. have replaced class at the edge of social transformation?

Communal councils – micro forms of local organisation – have offered the greatest potential for realising the vision of a new “communal state” based on participatory democracy, but as Bruce points out their development has not been without its problems.

Nonetheless, as with much of what has happened in Latin America in recent years, their success is as much a question of political will as anything else. He writes:

“Some on the revolutionary left, both inside and outside Venezuela, have argued that the communal councils, like the participatory budgets before them and indeed the entire notion of participatory democracy, are inherently incapable of becoming vehicles for building a new kind of state, a new kind of ‘socialist’ democracy, because their conception is by definition reformist – it assumes that you can use the existing institutions to begin to build, bit by bit, a whole new set of institutions… We would suggest that one of the key lessons of the Venezuelan experience so far has been that this is itself a limited and limiting notion of the difference between reform and revolution – one that any plausible project for socialism in the twenty-first century will probably have to find its way around. From such a stance, the problem cannot be reduced to where you begin. Even more important is what direction you are heading in, and how far you are prepared to go.” [p. 186]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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