In the many homages to Hugo Chávez in recent weeks, there is an important element that suffers almost complete neglect. For want of a better term we could call it “Leninism.” By this, of course, I do not mean the tired, formulaic (and basically anti-Leninist) doctrine that generally bears that name. It is precisely the hegemony of that surrogate doctrine, in addition to the intractability of the real one, that drives the neglect and is also behind the mostly conscious attempts to separate Chávez from what passes for Leninism.
Think of it: “The revolution against Capital“! That is how Gramsci understood Lenin’s work; this was Gramsci’s shorthand way of indicating how Lenin and company threw off the evolutionist, progressive consensus of their moment which included the Second International (hence the reference to Capital) and the bourgeois intelligentsia.1 This was the “end of history” doctrine of the epoch. Fast-forwarding a century, perhaps we can say that the single most important thing that Chávez and the Venezuelan people did from the 1990s onward was to throw off — in a revolutionary, Leninist way, if you will — the “end of history” consensus of our moment, which had infected both left and right.
The parallels with Fidel Castro and the 26 de Julio movement are also evident. By the mid to late 1950s most of the revolutionary fires seemed to be extinguished in the Caribbean region. With Jacobo Árbenz taken down and the liberal guerrilla in Colombia generally brought to bay, U.S. functionaries felt confident they had control over the area, their “backyard”; this situation was complemented by a great deal of confusion and defeatism in the ranks of the left. Then, seeming to come out of nowhere, the rapid advance of the 26 de Julio movement, which culminated in the toppling of Batista and the taking of La Habana in 1959, gave the lie to imperialism’s confidence; yet it also gave the lie to the Soviet version of the end of history, the tendency toward pacific coexistence with the U.S.
Defying not only Fukuyama but also Zapatista teachings in the air at the time, Chávez — like Lenin and Fidel — led a movement that took state power, and like them he was saddled with a million problems for doing so. Georg Lukács, in the best homage to Lenin that I know of, refers to his commentary on Napoleon’s saying “On s’engage et puis. . . on voit“; the Bolsheviks engaged in serious battle in October 1917, and then compromised on “such details as the Brest Peace, the New Economic Policy.”2 With this reference, Lukács means to identify and characterize the hundreds of pacts, compromises, and concessions that Lenin was forced to make because of the Bolsheviks’ taking of power: that is, precisely because of their doing the revolution in what can never be perfect circumstances. He differentiates this kind of pact from opportunistic ones that are made with the aim — though purportedly in the name of purity or what have you — of not doing the revolution.
Both before and after taking power, Hugo Chávez made many, many pacts and accords with figures such as Lukashenko, Ahmadinejad, Santos, Miquilena, and (it is commonly believed) even Gustavo Cisneros. The list goes on and includes the most varied powers and people. Since those included range from anti-imperialists such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the neoliberal businessman Gustavo Cisneros and the tractable social democrat Luis Miquilena, the inevitable question arises over tactics and strategy. What is the strategic line that runs through this most varied gamut of alliances? A similar question can be asked about the many projects that were born and disappeared like night flowers: the Five Motors, the Three Rs, Battalions (of the PSUV), Aló Presidente Teórico . . . the list goes on.
Much of this appears to be mere fishtailing, and there can be no doubt that in his surprising trajectory Chávez made serious errors — errors which could turn out one day to be fatal to the process in Venezuela, since unfortunately no revolutionary process is irreversible. Perhaps the best explanation of this complex trajectory appears when we look at Chávez’s process of political formation. As a young military officer, Chávez had links to the Revolutionary Party of Venezuela (PRV by its Spanish acronym, in which his brother was a militant) and other left movements. In prison after 1992, but even before it, Chávez read his way through many Marxist texts, including the most difficult ones. Some of these books came from a collection he bought from a former schoolteacher of his, a communist.
Then, on leaving prison, Chávez entered political life and to a certain extent put his Marxism behind him. To use a spatial metaphor we can say he began scouting the territory for himself or even groping his way around in the dark. We should not forget that in 1998 he was still talking about the Third Way of Anthony Giddens, the now forgotten intellectual fad of the moment! What is most important is that, as the years went by and in response to blows from imperialism and some of his own defeats, Chávez found himself reconnecting with Marxism via his practice and via the activities of the mass movement.
One such moment is when, faced with the plurality of movements in the World Social Forum of 2005 in Porto Alegre, Chávez thought of what could possibly unify all of them in their diversity and declared it to be “socialism.” Another is when, after trying to construct socialism from above with the constitutional reform of 2007, he took a step back and began to think about constructing it on the street level, working with the communes, thereby recovering the Marxist idea of the auto-emancipation of the working class.
Coming back to Lenin, we can observe that he also took steps back and had his moment of putting Marxism (or rather “Marxism”) behind him. Slavoj Zizek’s Repeating Lenin very excellently depicts the crisis Lenin entered into just before and during the First World War: a catastrophe that effectively included the disappearance of his movement.3 Lenin then re-encountered or reread Marxism though studying Hegel and through the revolutionary process that opened up in Russia in February 1917, which caught him by surprise. This new Lenin was Lenin at his most agile, most “dialectic”; now come events like those of the Finland Station as well as texts like The State and Revolution and the April Theses that continue to astound.
C.L.R. James, when in midlife and confronting the postwar taming of the left in his time, tried to unlock the secret of this Lenin, the most authentic Lenin. With the help of Raya Dunayevskaya, James went directly to the Russian text of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks. There he was deeply struck by Lenin’s marginal note to Hegel’s Doctrine of Being: “LEAP, LEAP, LEAP!” Lenin penned in a large script alongside Hegel’s paragraphs, in an attempt to summarize how the new comes into existence.4 It is this capacity to leap, to overcome the existing order of things — call it the neoliberal consensus, the end of history, economicism, or even pacific coexistence — that is the most important legacy of Lenin and the one that best characterizes Hugo Chávez.
Marxism, like any theory, is susceptible to the processes of fetishism that within capitalism tend to lead to a closed-off view of history. Its mainstream is apt to pact silently with the fatalism that informs intellectual production beneath capitalism. This can be seen in how perhaps the most brilliant Marxist theorist of the second half of the 20th century, Louis Althusser, tended to allow his discoveries regarding structures and combination in capitalism to slide into accepting the inescapability of those very structures. “Leninism,” then, would be the name for that moment of rupture with capital, and with its theories, and even with the theories critical of capitalism to the degree that they make peace with fatalism.
This is the Leninism of Chávez. It is a firm no to all fatalism, and a commitment to struggle and even muddle one’s way through what appear to be endgame scenarios, with the aim of advancing toward a more just and better society. Marxism, of course, is not a Utopian doctrine in the sense that it does not propose that there is some perfect society and then speculate (impossibly) about how to get there. But it is Utopian in the sense that it teaches that a radically different modernity is not only possible but to some degree latent in the development of the current, capitalist one. Not only that: Marxism says that human beings are not creatures of the hive, but can work towards that alternative modernity’s realization.
In his impressive Golpe de timón speech of five months ago, which constitutes Chávez’s last serious political testament, he recognizes that, the political revolution having been done, the economic changes relevant to the construction of socialism are still unrealized. Then he adds, “I am not saying this so that we feel overwhelmed or daunted; on the contrary, to gather new forces before the complexity of the challenge.” I think that in these words — and really throughout the entire remarkable discourse — one perceives an attitude very akin to Lenin’s dogged resistance to reconcile with “what there is.” We could say that this resistance, combined with a perennial disposition to struggle inventively, is the best legacy of Lenin and of Leninists like Chávez — if it were not also a kind of anti-legacy insofar as it refuses to let one live cozily or complacently with it.
This article owes a great deal to conversations with my friend Gabriel Gil, who has insisted on Chávez’s Leninism and helped me to understand many elements of Chávez’s development and practice as a revolutionary.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.