In one of his last important public discourses, popularly known as the Golpe de Timón speech, the late President Hugo Chávez told a joke about an indigenous tribe and a priest. The priest baptized the indigenous people giving them Christian names, held communion, and told them not to eat meat on Friday but rather fish or the large rodent chigüire. The priest left for a while and then came back only to find the tribe grilling a pig on that very day. “What’s going on here?” the priest asked. The people responded: “No problem, we put water on the pig’s head and said: You who were once pig are now called chigüire.”
Chávez warned that this was what was being done with capitalism in Venezuela. What was once known as capitalism was simply being rebaptized as “socialism.” This story about indigenous people and priests not only illustrates his point; it also, with a bit of interrogation, raises a number of interesting questions about the fate of socialism in the Bolivarian process. Is socialism in Venezuela seen as something imposed from without? Do habits that are part of a culture of resistance, of anti-colonialism, actually work against the transition to socialism in the Bolivarian Republic?
Latin American societies are dominated, according to the theorist Bolívar Echeverría, by the baroque. More than simply a period of European art history, the baroque can be extended to describe a basic cultural ethos that is typical of syncretic societies, such as those of Mediterranean Europe and Latin America. When a foreign element is introduced — such as Christianity and its symbols — instead of being rejected, it is scenified, theatricalized. The foreign element is accepted but also mediated and even subverted by its theatricalization. (One can think of the rich floral decoration and setting for the Virgin of Guadalupe, the sensuality and excess of which speak for a sophisticated recoding of the figure.)
According to this logic, socialism becomes “socialism.” The repetition and multiplication of the term in such combinations as socialist motorcycles, socialist bakeries, socialist avenues, etc. — common in today’s Venezuela — while superficially welcoming the project, at the same time principally reaffirms the rich Creole popular culture. This culture is a product in part of capitalism but also of specifically local and popular values such as solidarity, gregariousness, and generosity. It has many virtues — and is indeed a culture of resistance — but after the injection and encounter with the socialism input (as was later to happen with the “buen vivir” input), it has not materially advanced toward or retreated from socialism; that is, it has not changed its real position with relation to capitalism.
It is against this possibility that Chávez warned. Of course, this is not a reason to give up socialism as a project in Venezuela. Quite the contrary. The problem is in part that “socialism,” “capitalism,” and “social class” have all been converted into abstract entelechies. (Though this has been done often by Marxists, it is thoroughly uncharacteristic of the practice of Marx.) Creole capitalism, like the Creole working class, are historical products. As Ellen Meiksins Wood argues, a class does not fall out mechanically from the productive apparatus but instead is a historical product: it is constructed, and in part self-constructed, in a historical process. E.P. Thompson, who famously pursued this line of thought, tellingly entitled his landmark book The Making of the English Working Class.
The task, then, for those committed to socialism, is to see in what exactly these struggling classes consist — what is their culture, their way of life and lived experience. Only with a sense of what the Venezuelan working class actually consists in can one begin to think about the steps that could be taken toward a socialism that is not downloaded as simply another abstract entelechy but rather is itself a historical product with its own cultural and experiential specificities, however much it may be conditioned by a productive apparatus under the regime of social property (conditioned or determined in the sense of providing the limits, or the field, within which an array of contingent possibilities could take place).
Perhaps the Cuban case provides an interesting parallel. From the early 1960s to about 1969, the Cuban revolutionaries experimented with an endogenous socialist project in which José Martí, radical patriotism, anti-imperialism, and the Third-World spirit were important elements. Around 1969, for a number of reasons, including the death of Che Guevara and the failure to achieve the hoped-for sugar harvest of ten million tons, this project entered into crisis. Instead of abandoning the socialist project — or “accepting-and-abandoning it” as Venezuelans may be in danger of doing — the Cubans opted to download the Soviet model. Hence began the “Grey Years,” though dogmatism, homophobia, and other serious errors, as terrible as they were, did not prevent the Cubans from advancing in many areas including education, health, and continuing with their heroic internationalism.
Evaluating this period is not a matter of mere speculation, something to be done from academics’ offices. History itself passed judgment when the USSR tragically began to crumble. Fidel and the Cuban people returned to their endogenous project: Fidel cited Antonio Maceo and said, Cuba’s future will be an eternal Baraguá! The people bore down and found incredible resources in Martí-inspired self-sacrifice while carrying out one of the most heroic if little recognized struggles in recent times: the Special Period. At the same time the Cuban thinker who is perhaps closest to E.P. Thompson, because of his belief in a socialism that would be a profoundly popular construction, Fernando Martínez Heredia, was brought out of retirement. He was celebrated in the Havana Book Fair of 2012. Quietly, in a few sectors (unfortunately still not hegemonic), the question of how to create a socialism out of the historical stuff one has on hand, including the people- and classes-in-motion, was put on the table.
I think this is the only possibility for Venezuela. The only way to respond to the idea — implicitly interiorized even among militants of the Process — that “Socialism has failed” (and for that reason a pact with the bourgeoisie is necessary). Socialism cannot “fail” or not work as if it were an electric razor or other gadget bought on the Internet. Nor can it be made by fiat, as Chávez’s joke reminds us. The project of constructing the future society out of the stuff-on-hand could be passing through a good or a bad moment. But the challenge of making socialism out of the very elements and forces of a society in motion — including the Bolivarian fighting spirit and its Chavista renaissance, the forward-looking nature of Latin American culture, the resilience of Venezuela’s urban settlers — is still the same. For that reason the possibility of a socialism with the flesh and blood of this society continues to be a real and inspiring project.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.