Strike at the Helm?  Clamors from a Makeshift Raft

In a cabinet meeting in October 2012, months before his death, Hugo Chávez declared that the Bolivarian process needed to make a radical change of course, literally calling for a “golpe de timón” or “strike at the helm.”  From that moment forward the slogan “golpe de timón” began to circulate in the most varied contexts in Venezuela, with some people lobbying for the government to take a new direction and others speculating about how the swerve might actually be to the right rather than the left!  Some organizations and groups adopted Chávez’s slogan for their political programs and propaganda.  Above all, people have wondered during the last three years why President Nicolás Maduro has not made the change of course that Chávez ordered (this question is implicit in a recent article by Luis Britto García).  Given the wide play that the phrase “strike at the helm” has had, it is all the more important to determine whether this metaphor — taken from a navigational register — really has anything to do with Venezuelan reality.

Of course, the idea of the “ship of state” has a long history, with its origins dating back as far as ancient Greece.  Tracing the full genealogy of this trope could be the subject of a valuable philological investigation.  However, for a political process like the Venezuelan one which aspires to socialism, there is a historical reference that is much more immediately relevant.  This is a brief text from 1901 in which Lenin criticizes the group Rabocheye Dyelo (“workers’ cause”) for proposing a “historic turn” — an idea which is almost exactly equivalent to the “strike at the helm” slogan in the Chavist discourse.  The Rabocheye Dyelo group argued in favor of making rapid swerves in the revolutionary movement, backing up its argument with Wilhelm Liebknecht’s words about tactics: “If circumstances change within twenty-four hours, then it is necessary to change tactics in twenty-four hours.”

How did Lenin respond to Rabocheye Dyelo’s version of the “strike at the helm” idea?  Lenin rejected the proposal, insisting instead on the importance of a different kind of work.  “The immediate task,” his article explained, “is to call for the formation of a revolutionary organization capable of uniting all forces and guiding the movement in actual practice and not in name alone.”  In effect, Lenin argued for the need to establish an organization with a helm or a steering mechanism as a precondition for making a “strike at the helm” or “historic turn.”  (Needless to say Lenin also sought to highlight the difference between the realm of tactics, where there can indeed be rapid changes, and that of strategy, which must be more stable.)

Lenin’s text is extraordinarily relevant to the Venezuelan context.  The metaphor of making a “strike at the helm” is a mainstay of the Chavist left wing’s discourse, but few take the time to ask if the Bolivarian movement really is a craft that has a rudder or wheel.  In fact, Chavism is not a boat with a rudder — or any other effective steering mechanism — but much more like a raft or barge: it is a heterogeneous and amorphous movement that, if not totally adrift, does indeed float on the tides and currents of the world economy and is always at the mercy of changing correlations of forces between social classes inside the movement.  Chávez himself recognized this problem in the years 2006 and 2007 and he tried to correct it by forming a revolutionary party . . . but without much success.  When re-baptized as “PSUV-United Socialist Party of Venezuela,” the Chavist movement did not overcome its raft-like character: the new organization is capable of carrying out electoral tasks but it is too loose and unstructured to qualify as a steerable boat.

Therefore, the task of making an actually steerable organization — one endowed with a helm — remains in force.  If a leader with Chávez’s extraordinary ability failed to change course where he saw a problem emerging, one can hardly be surprised that Nicolás Maduro cannot do so either (assuming he actually wants to).  In recent months, the government has taken steps to further liberalize the economy and has opened the Orinoco Oil Belt to massive international “participation.”  These are terrible, drastic measures, and they would amount to treason if there were another option.  But is it possible to imagine that the Chavist raft could really take a different tack?  Could our loose movement do something other than float with the rising and falling of the world economy, buoying up during bonanzas and then drifting in times of crisis?  The truth is that a rudderless boat has very few options beyond cycling between populism in good times and neoliberal belt-tightening in times of global crisis: the phase of the global economy will determine which option is applied.

To counteract this logic, the Chavist left wing needs to organize itself.  Without insisting on every detail of Leninist party-building, it is clear that a revolutionary organization must have at least internal democracy and the ability to enforce a political line.  Of course it is not simply a matter of closing ranks with Nicolás Maduro, as some would think: whether Maduro remains the head of the Chavist movement is something that can be decided along the way.  There is a savvy Argentinian slogan — “We will advance to victory with our leaders at the head or with the heads of our leaders!” — that we should make our own.

The upshot of this for the Chavist left is that all of our railing against the government’s pacts with the bourgeoisie and our ever more strident urging to choose a revolutionary path as against a reformist one are simply a waste of time if they are not accompanied by a process of building a steerable movement.  They are merely based on the fantasy that “someone, somewhere” is manning the helm.  Actually, right now, there is no helm; it must be built!

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.  Spanish Language Version.