When supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez rallied in the Teresa Carrena theatre in Caracas to celebrate their presidential election victory on December 15, 2006, “there were cheers in the back half of the theatre,” writes Michael Lebowitz, “but few in the high-priced seats.”
This was not because Chávez spoke of going forward to socialism and combating corruption — that wasn’t new — but because “it was all about the new party,” which Chávez insisted must be built “from the base” by the popular committees that fought and won the election.
The prospect of a united, fighting party of the Venezuelan masses is indeed unsettling to the conservative careerists who occupy many high posts in the pro-Chávez political parties. But, for working people, it could be the instrument they need to break the present deadlock in Venezuela’s class struggle and move decisively against capitalist rule.
Victory without Precedent
The victory of the Bolivarian movement in the December 3 presidential elections has created the most favorable conditions yet for such an advance. The Venezuelan people made the elections the occasion for their largest mobilization ever in support of the Bolivarian movement and President Hugo Chávez.
The pro-Chávez vote of 7.3 million (63% of votes cast) was almost double his total in the last presidential elections, and 25% more than in the recall referendum of 2004. Moreover, Chávez supporters on election day massively occupied the streets, forestalling any opposition effort to challenge the vote.
So massive was the victory that the right-wing opposition, for the first time since the Bolivarians took office in 1998, conceded that they had indeed lost the election and that Chávez was Venezuela’s legitimate president. With characteristic generosity, Chávez congratulated the opposition for “their display of democracy” and invited them to “include themselves in the process of building the new Venezuela.”
Program for Change
When his new cabinet was sworn in on January 8, Chávez pledged to set a fast pace in carrying out the mandate of Venezuelan voters. Among his proposed measures: nationalization of key industries privatized under previous governments, including the giant telecommunications and electricity companies, and expansion of government ownership of oil projects. The national bank’s independence will be curbed.
More power will be transferred to the recently created communal councils (see below). What is needed, Chávez said, is to “dismantle the bourgeois state” and create a “communal state.”
Progress toward a new socialist party will be crucial in enabling these and other programs to advance.
Danger from Within
According to Lebowitz, a Caracas-based Marxist writer, the main danger to the Venezuelan revolution comes not from the opposition, its backers in Washington, or the capitalist class they represent. “The problem of the Venezuelan revolution is from within. It’s whether it will be deformed by people around Chávez.”
Many officials in the Bolivarian political parties “want Chávez without socialism,” Lebowitz says, and “want to retain the power to make decisions from above.”
Following the elections, officials of many of the two dozen parties of the Bolivarian movement made boastful statements regarding how many of the Chávez votes had been on their ticket. (Under Venezuelan electoral law, Chávez’s vote is the sum total of votes for all the parties who named him as their candidate. The Movement for the Fifth Republic [MVR] picked up about two-thirds of the Bolivarian votes; the rest were widely scattered.)
“Let’s not fall into lies,” said Chávez on December 15. “Those votes were not for any party . . . they were votes for Chávez, for the people.” The audience then responded with an ovation to his call, “Don’t divide the people!”
A New Party
“The revolution requires a united party, not an alphabet soup,” Chávez said. “I Hugo Chávez Frias . . . declare today that I am going to create a new party.” It will be “a political instrument at the service not of blocs or groupings but of the people and the Revolution, at the service of socialism.” To great applause, he proposed the name “United Socialist Party of Venezuela” (PSUV).
As for those who doubt the wisdom of this proposal, Chávez continued, “I don’t have time to bury myself in a debate . . . they are entirely free to pursue their course.” But “obviously, they will leave the government.”
The new party will not be a copy of any existing organization. As for the dominant Bolivarian party, the MVR, which Chávez himself founded, “its work is completed; it must pass into history.” Nor would party officials be automatically carried over to the new formation: “You will not see me with the same old faces, the same party leaderships — no, that would be a deception.”
How then will the party be formed? Chávez recalled the battle of the recall referendum in 2004, which was won by thousands of Units for the Electoral Battle (UBEs), made up of working people across the country. “Afterwards, I asked everyone to maintain the UBEs . . . but almost everywhere they were lost. . . . Let us be sure this does not happen after our great victory of December 3.”
Built by the Ranks
Hailing the great work of 11,000 Bolivarian battalions, 32,800 platoons, and innumerable squads in rallying the people for this victory, Chávez said, “Let not a single squad dissolve. Starting tomorrow, the leaders of the squads, platoons, and battalions must bring together their troops, their worthy troops, who are the people.”
Get hold of a computer, typewriter, whatever, Chávez said, and draw up a list — “a census of the activists, sympathizers, and friends” — for “the battalions, platoons, and squads will be the basic national structure” of the new party, a party built “from below.”
Chávez blasted the prevailing custom of hand-picking candidates and leaders from above — in the Venezuelan idiom, singling them out “with the finger.” “Enough of the little finger,” he said, “and generally it’s often my finger,” when he is “asked to take decisions on candidates. . . . This should all be done from below, from the base. The people should take these decisions, as has been written in our Constitution for seven years, except we haven’t done it. Now is the time to start.”
Most Latin American left parties of the 20th century, Chávez noted, had “copied the Bolshevik model of the party,” which under Lenin’s leadership brought victory in the Russian revolution of 1917. Later, this party “went off course, which Lenin could not prevent because he was ill and died very young.” The Bolsheviks “ended up as an anti-democratic party, and the wonderful slogan, ‘All power to the soviets,’ ended up as ‘All power for the party.’
“In my humble opinion, this deformation took place close to the outset of the socialist revolution that gave birth to the Soviet Union, and we saw the results 70 years later” in the USSR’s collapse. Workers did not come out to defend the Soviet system “because it had become converted into an elitist structure that could not build socialism.
“We here will build Venezuelan socialism — an original Venezuelan model.”
The new party “must be created not for electoral purposes — even though it will carry out electoral battles as we have done,” Chávez said. “The task is to carry out the battle of ideas for the socialist project.” For this purpose, everyone must “study, read, discuss” and “distribute information, printed material.”
Roots of Socialism in Religion
Chávez took care to present socialism not as something new, invented, or imported, but as growing organically out of the traditions and beliefs of the Venezuelan people. The socialist project, he said on December 3, is “Indo-Venezuelan, homegrown, Christian, and Bolivarian.”
In his December 15 address, he employed relevant passages in the Christian Bible to good effect. The prophet Isaiah condemned those who accumulate wealth, “Woe to those who add house to house [and] join field to field, until there is no more room” (Isaiah 5:8). Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount blessed the poor and denounced the rich: “Woe to you that are well fed, for you shall hunger” (Luke 6:20-25). “We are much more moderate than Christ,” Chávez said. “We don’t want anyone to go hungry” and that the rich “share with us the happiness of being free . . . everyone free and equal.” But Jesus “was a radical, a revolutionary, an avenger, and that’s why he was crucified by the capitalists and imperialists of that time.”
Chávez pointed to the example of the early Christian church, quoting the Biblical account that believers who owned land and other property donated them to the community, “and distribution was made to each as any had need.” For the company of believers “were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32-35)..
Roots of Socialism in Venezuela
“Once Fidel [Castro] told me, speaking of Christ, ‘I’m a Christian on social questions.'” Chávez added, “Well, the atheists are welcome. This is not a religious movement. . . . I’m just searching for its roots.”
Then he pointed to the example of Simón Bolívar, “a pre-socialist thinker,” who believed that society must be based on equality. Among Bolívar’s companions, Simón Rodríguez was a “socialist thinker,” and the Brazilian revolutionary José Ignacio Abreu de Lima was author of “the first book on socialism written in the Americas.”
Chávez also recalled how the pioneer Peruvian socialist, José Carlos Mariátegui, had pointed to the socialist project’s roots in the indigenous societies of America. The indigenous peoples “lived in socialism for centuries,” Chávez said. Naming several aboriginal communities in Venezuela — including that of the Delta Amacuro, “where we won 100% of the vote” — Chávez called them “the bearers of the socialist seed in our land, our nation, our America.” They must be the vanguard, he said, for “we are going to relaunch Indo-Venezuelan socialism.”
Referring to all these experiences, Chávez said, “We’re going to take these models to the neighborhoods, to the housing developments; we’re going to create spaces for socialism.”
Venezuela could not be satisfied with “utopian socialism,” Chávez said. It offered no practical solutions “until Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels launched the Communist Manifesto — the thesis of scientific socialism.”
They began to propose solutions based on “the transformation of the economic model” which is “fundamental if we wish to build a true socialism. Therefore we must socialize the economy,” including the land, and create a “new productive model,” he said. All the “new spaces that we are creating or regaining” will be “nuclei of socialist construction.”
On January 8, Chávez was more explicit: the aim is “social ownership over the strategic sectors of the means of production.”
Barriers to Progress
It is not hard to enumerate the massive obstacles facing Venezuelan workers and farmers along this road. The capitalist profit-making system remains intact — in fact, it has had a banner year. The capitalist right wing controls almost all the media and benefits from the sympathy or lethargy of many in the governmental apparatus. The enemies of the revolution stand ready to use violence and dictatorship to impose their will — backed to the hilt by U.S. imperialism.
Although the Bolivarian government’s measures have brought tangible benefits to the poor, poverty remains widespread and profound. Land reform has progressed slowly. Only a minority of workers have stable employment in the legal economy.
And the Bolivarian trade union movement that represents this minority is in disarray, wracked by factional divisions, and has done little to implement the government’s program to expand workers’ control.
But the most immediate barriers impeding further advances towards overturning capitalism in Venezuela lie in the political realm — the state bureaucracy ensconced in the ministries and different levels of government, and a vast layer of careerists operating in the traditional political parties, including pro-Chavist organizations.
Most political parties in Venezuela function as electoral machines dominated by parasitic elements who use them to control and dispense jobs and other favors to their clientele. By launching a new united socialist party, Chávez has made an important move to allow workers and farmers to push these elements aside and position themselves to fight more effectively for their class interests.
Strategy for Socialism
The Bolivarian movement has not developed any blueprint for the transformation of this economy. Chávez’s speech on the new party, however, gives evidence of a strategy for the struggle for socialism based on placing power in the hands of the working people who have beaten back capitalist assaults in each successive confrontation. “We will build it from below, an endogenous socialism,” Chávez said.
If built as Chávez advocates, the new party could solve the central challenge facing the Bolivarian movement: that of linking the worker and farmer base together with their chosen leadership in a cohesive, democratic political movement.
As for the government apparatus, the Bolivarians continue to focus on creating parallel institutions controlled by the worker-farmer ranks. On December 15, Chávez focused on the Communal Councils (Consejos Comunales), of which 16,000 have been organized to coordinate action around the concerns of residents. “They are the key to peoples’ power,” he said, appealing for their extension to every party of the country.
These councils, he said, must “transcend the local framework” and achieve “a sort of regional federation of Communal Councils” that could elect coordinating bodies. On January 8, he went further, projecting the councils as the embryo of a new state.
A united socialist party will be key weapon in the fight to achieve such goals.
Challenge to Socialist Movement
On December 3, Chávez dedicated his election victory “to the Cuban people and to president Fidel Castro, brother, comrade, companion.” The inspiration, guidance, and practical help of the Cuban revolutionaries has been crucial in winning Venezuelan working people to support socialism. Today Venezuela, allied with Cuba, plays a similar role in winning new forces internationally to the goal of socialism.
The outstanding significance of Chávez’s new-party initiative, as of all the Bolivarians’ major struggles of the last couple of years, is that a vision of authentic socialism is taking root. Socialists around the world must ensure that the voice of the Bolivarians is heard and understood by rebels and activists everywhere.
Hugo Chávez on the new party, 15 December 2006 (in Spanish, text plus video)
Hugo Chávez on his re-election, 3 December 2006 (in English)
Michael Lebowitz, “‘It’s My Party, and I’ll Cry If I Want to’: Chavez Moves Forward,” MRZine 17 December 2006.
Coral Wynter and Jim McIlroy, “Challenges for Venezuela’s Revolution,” an interview with Michael Lebowitz, Green Left Weekly 690, 10 November 2006.
C. Wynter and Jim McIlroy, “Marta Harnecker: Venezuela’s Experiment in Popular Power,” Green Left Weekly 693, 30 November 2006.
John Riddell is a co-editor of Socialist Voice.