Alan Woods looks back at the life and revolutionary role of Hugo Chávez, using the 5th anniversary of his death to examine the prospects for the Bolivarian Revolution going forward.
Five years have passed since the death of Hugo Chávez. I had known him for almost ten years and had an enormous respect for his courage, honesty and dedication to the fight against oppression and exploitation. For this he earned the hatred of all the forces of the old society: the bankers, capitalists and landowners, the imperialists, the CIA and of course the so-called ‘free press’ that is merely the slavish mouthpiece of the old order.
The media campaign of vilification against Chávez had no precedent in modern history. Consequently, it was difficult for people in other countries to form a truthful impression of him. Even socialists and communists in Western Europe for a long time allowed themselves to be influenced by this barrage of barefaced lies.
What these ladies and gentlemen could never understand was the intense loyalty, love and affection that he inspired in the masses who adored him. This was the other side of the coin of the bitter hatred of the possessing classes. In essence this extreme polarization of attitudes was a reflection of the class polarization in society concentrated on a single person.
For decades Venezuela was ruled by a corrupt and degenerate oligarchy. There was a so-called two party system in which both parties represented the interests of the oligarchy. When Chávez founded the Bolivarian Movement, he sought to clean out the stinking Augean stables that were Venezuelan political life. This was a limited and very modest objective – but it met with the ferocious resistance of the ruling oligarchy and its servants.
In the eyes of the masses Chávez represented the revolution: their own awakening to political life, the feeling that for the first time ordinary working people and the poor were in charge. He was the man who stood up to imperialism and the oligarchy and tried to create a better, more just and more equal society.
The role of the individual in history
An individual’s personality can have an effect on the processes of history. For me, what is interesting is the dialectical relationship between subject and object, or, as Hegel would have expressed it, between the Particular and the Universal. It would be very instructive to write a book on the exact relationship between Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan Revolution. That such a relation exists is not open to doubt. Whether it is positive or negative will depend on what class standpoint one defends.
On 27 February 1989, the poor people living in the shanty towns surrounding Caracas took over the streets in protest against a new hike on public transportation prices. It became a nationwide uprising known as the Caracazo. The government of Carlos Andres Perez sent armed troops to put down the movement in blood. Official figures place the death toll at just under 300, but other estimates indicate up to 3,000 were gunned down.
Without the Caracazo it is not impossible that Hugo Chávez might have remained an army officer pursuing a normal military career unknown to the public.
The Caracazo and the brutal reaction that followed it had a profound effect among sections of the army, including some of the officers. This discontent led to an unsuccessful military uprising led by Chávez in 1992. He was imprisoned but subsequently released under pressure from the masses. From the standpoint of the poor and downtrodden, Hugo Chávez was the man who brought them to their feet and who inspired them, by his undoubted personal courage, to acts of unparalleled heroism. The personal role of Chávez was decisive. He acted as a catalyst, which, when all the conditions are present, produces a dramatic change.
The relationship between Hugo Chávez and the masses was a very complex and dialectical one. He aroused colossal enthusiasm and devotion. We saw the same emotions on the streets of Caracas on the days before and after his funeral. I had occasion to see this for myself many times when I attended the mass rallies where he addressed the people.
When Chávez spoke to the workers and peasants, the effect was always electric. On such occasions, one could sense a kind of chemical reaction between Chávez and the masses. There was no mistaking the intense loyalty felt by the poor and downtrodden masses to this man. Hugo Chávez for the first time gave the poor and downtrodden a voice and some hope. That is the secret of the extraordinary devotion and loyalty they have always shown him. He aroused them to life and they saw themselves in him. For them, Hugo Chávez and the Revolution were one and the same thing.
I wrote about my impressions when I first saw this at first hand in April 2004:
“As he spoke, I was able to watch the reaction of the masses on the big screen behind the president. Old people and youngsters, men and women, the overwhelming majority working class, listened intently, straining on every word. They applauded, cheered, laughed and even wept as they stood there. This was the face of an aroused people, a people that has become aware of itself as an active participant in the historical process – the face of a revolution.”
The process cut both ways. Chávez drew his strength from the support of the masses, with whom he identified fully. In his manner of speaking – spontaneous and completely lacking in the stiff formality of the professional politician – he connected with them. If there was sometimes a lack of clarity, even this reflected the stage in which the mass movement found itself. The identity was complete.
Chávez’s enemies on the right could never understand the reason for this. They could not understand it because they are organically incapable of understanding the dynamics of the revolution itself. The ruling class and its intellectual prostitutes can never accept that the masses have a mind and personality of their own, that they are a tremendously creative force that is capable not only of changing society but also of administering it. They can never admit such a thing because to do so would be to admit their own bankruptcy and confess that they are not a necessary and indispensable social agent endowed with a God-given right to rule, but are a superfluous and parasitic class and a reactionary obstacle to progress.
But it was not only the bourgeois who were incapable of understanding what was happening in Venezuela. Many on the left were equally unable to understand this phenomenon. Incapable of placing themselves on the standpoint of the masses, they adopted a haughty attitude, as if the masses whose name they were always invoking were ignorant children who needed to be educated by them. Unfortunately for these ‘lefts’, the masses showed not the slightest interest in these would-be-educators or their lessons.
The Bolivarian Revolution gave the people of Venezuela important reforms in the fields of health, housing and education. However, the most important gain of the revolution was intangible, one might say, moral. It gave the masses a sense of their own dignity as human beings, it imparted a keen sense of justice, it gave them a new sense of their own power, it gave them a new confidence. It gave them hope for the future. From the standpoint of the ruling class and imperialism, this represented a mortal peril.
Chávez and imperialism
Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution was a direct threat to US imperialism because of the example it gives to the oppressed masses in the rest of Latin America. Ever since the Monroe Doctrine was announced, the rulers of the USA have seen Latin America as their own private backyard. A revolutionary wave was sweeping the entire Latin American continent, and Hugo Chávez acted as a powerful catalyst for the revolutionary movement throughout the continent. This made him public enemy number one for Washington.
In the beginning, the Venezuelan oligarchy did not know what to make of Chávez. They thought he would be like any other Venezuelan politician. That is to say, that he was for sale. As soon as they realised that they could not buy Chávez, they set in motion plans to overthrow him. On 11 April 2002, they organized a coup. Behind it there were powerful forces: the landlords, bankers, capitalists, the media, the church, generals, police chiefs, corrupt trade union leaders and the CIA.
Chávez was arrested and kidnapped. The plotters installed themselves in the palace of Miraflores. But within 48 hours they were overthrown by a spontaneous uprising of the masses. Units of the army loyal to Chávez went over to the masses, and the coup collapsed ignominiously on 13 April. For the first time in the history of Venezuela, the masses overthrew a coup. In reality, power was in their hands, but tragically they did not know it.
After the defeat of the coup it would have been possible to carry out a socialist revolution swiftly and painlessly. Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost and the reactionaries were allowed to regroup and organize a new attempt in the so-called ‘strike’ (in reality a bosses’ lockout) that did serious damage to the economy. The new attempt was defeated by the workers, who seized control of the factories and oil installations and kicked out the reactionaries. Once again the possibility existed of a radical transformation without civil war. And once again the opportunity was lost. The problem was one of leadership.
The opposition complained a lot about alleged ill-treatment, but there was no basis for these complaints. Far from being too harsh, the government was extraordinary lenient. For years the pro-opposition media was allowed to slander the president in the most scandalous way, to call for his overthrow and even assassination. RCTV, Globovisión, Venevisión, all the privately owned TV channels played a very active role in organizing the 2002 coup.
Does anyone think that any of these things would be permitted in the United States, Britain or any of the other countries that boast of their ‘democracy’? If any British television channel had done one tenth of the things they did, it would have its license withdrawn before it could say ‘Theresa May’ and its owners would find themselves put on trial under the Anti-Terrorist Laws.
In Venezuela it took over four years for action to be taken against any of these declared advocates of terrorism and murder were called to order. Even then the leniency of the authorities was extraordinary. RCTV was denied the renewal of its open to air licence, but allowed to continue to broadcast over cable.
The spiteful arguments of the enemies of the revolution to the effect that Chávez was a dictator were always ironic. Whatever you think about Hugo Chávez, he was certainly no dictator. He won more elections and other electoral processes than any other political leader in the world.
The opposition that claims to be democratic has never respected the will of the majority of the people. For years it has used the economic levers and control of the media to sabotage the democratic will of the people and has not hesitated to use violence and terror on the streets whenever it suited them.
The Chávez I knew
The Chávez I knew was a man of great personal integrity and boundless energy. Once, when I was asked to meet him at 1 am in the Presidential Palace I asked him what time he finished his working day and was told “at 3 am.” I said: “and then you sleep?” He replied with a broad smile: “No, then I read.”
He was in fact a voracious reader. Indeed I believe Chávez must have been the only leading statesman in the world who read books. (One can scarcely imagine the present occupant of the White House reading a comic). He once told me: “I love books – all books. If they are good books I love them even more. But even if they are bad, I still love them.”
On the president’s own initiative, huge editions of books like Don Quixote and Les Misérables were printed and distributed to millions of people free of charge. It is not surprising that under his presidency, Venezuela was for the first time declared free of illiteracy by UNICEF.
And Chávez had guts. He denounced the crimes of US imperialism in the most vigorous terms. The whole world will remember his speech at the United Nations where, speaking after George W Bush, he said: “The Devil came here yesterday. Right here. [crosses himself] And it smells of sulphur still today.”
The ‘free press’ was naturally scandalised by this speech, which nobody but Hugo Chávez would dared to have made. But it cheered the hearts of millions of people who wanted to see their leaders stand up to Washington and its imperial pretensions.
Was this a revolution?
Some years ago, when I was on a speaking tour in Italy, a left-wing journalist from Il Manifesto asked me in a perplexed tone: “But Alan, what has the situation in Venezuela got in common with the classical model of the proletarian revolution?” In reply, I quoted the words of Lenin: “Whoever wishes to see a ‘pure’ revolution will never live to see it. Such a person talks about revolution and does not know what a revolution is.”
A revolution is, in essence, a situation where the masses begin to participate actively in politics and to take their destiny into their own hands. Leon Trotsky – who, after all, knew a few things about revolutions – answers in the following way:
“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, preface, my emphasis)
This was certainly the case in Venezuela. The awakening of the masses and their active participation in politics is the most decisive feature of the Venezuelan Revolution and the secret of its success.
Chávez and socialism
The development of Hugo Chávez’s political ideas represented an evolution, in which many factors were involved. He developed and grew in stature together with the revolution. The Revolution itself is a mighty school in which millions of men and women learn through their experience. Lenin, who was one of the greatest Marxist theoreticians, once said that for the masses an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory.
Hugo Chávez played a very important role in reopening the debate on socialism at a time when many had written it off. The president frequently recommended reading the works of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky. This was enormously positive.
Chávez was a true internationalist. When he denounced the crimes of US imperialism, he always made a careful distinction between the ruling class and the ordinary people of the United States, towards whom he harboured no feelings of hostility – quite the contrary. At the time of his famous speech in the UN, he took the unprecedented step of visiting the South Bronx: a neighbourhood of poor and working-class residents in New York. That visit is still remembered by the people. What other world leader would do such a thing?
When he spoke of socialism, he always spoke of the need for world socialism. Chávez always spoke in the most unambiguous terms about his commitment to socialism, not only in Venezuela and Latin America, but on a world scale. For instance, when in 2009 he launched the idea of forming a Fifth International, he said: “Let’s save the world: let’s defeat imperialism; let’s save the world, let’s defeat capitalism. Let’s rescue the words of Rosa Luxemburg: ‘Socialism or Barbarism.’”
The attempt to found a new international was undone by the bureaucracy and the Stalinists, who sabotaged so many of the revolutionary initiatives launched by Hugo Chávez. The sabotage is what has undermined the revolution and placed its very future in jeopardy.
My relations with Chávez
Some years ago I had an interesting conversation with a man in Carabobo. I asked him what he thought of the Bolivarian government. He delivered such a hostile diatribe that I assumed he was a member of the counterrevolutionary opposition. I then discovered that he was actually a member of a ‘Trotskyist’ organisation based in Argentina. I asked him whether what he had just said was the line they were putting to the Venezuelan workers. He answered proudly that it was.
“And what response do you get?” I asked. He responded with a shrug of his shoulders. “But do the workers support Chávez?” I asked. “Absolutely!” He replied without hesitation. I then asked him how many members his group had in Venezuela. He answered twelve (I later discovered that this was an exaggeration). I then informed him that he was wasting his time. “If you are serious, you should join the movement and put forward your program.” I do not believe he ever did this, and his group today remains just as irrelevant as it was then.
It is hardly surprising to me that these same ‘lefts’ whose sole participation in the Bolivarian Revolution has been shouting from the side-lines have singled me out for the most picturesque abuse for my friendship with Hugo Chávez. As we say in the English language, empty vessels make the most noise. The ultra-lefts internationally are well known to be the emptiest of all empty vessels, and therefore without doubt the noisiest. I have long since ceased to pay them the slightest attention.
For many years I have written many articles and made numerous speeches on the Venezuelan Revolution. These are all in the public domain and anybody can read them. During many visits to Venezuela I have addressed mass meetings of workers and peasants and given many interviews in the press and on television. My views are therefore well known and I have no need to change them now. For the record I will summarise them here.
I considered – and I still consider – that it was an elementary duty of every conscious worker to defend the Venezuelan Revolution against is internal and external enemies – imperialism and the oligarchy. On 29 April 2004 I wrote:
“In speech after speech in Venezuela – including several televised interviews – I was asked my opinion about the Venezuelan Revolution, and answered in the following sense: ‘Your Revolution is an inspiration to the workers of the whole world: you have accomplished miracles; the driving force of the revolution, however, is the working class and the masses, and that is the secret of its future success. However, the revolution has not been finished and will not be finished unless and until you destroy the economic power of the bankers and capitalists. In order to do this, the masses must be armed and organised in action committees, organised at all levels. The workers must have their own independent organizations and we must build the Marxist Revolutionary Tendency.’”
I believe that these lines are clear enough. If ill-intentioned individuals today wish to distort my ideas and misrepresent my attitude to the Bolivarian Revolution, that is entirely their problem. I might add that not a single one of my ‘left’ critics ever played the slightest role in the Venezuelan Revolution, nor could they understand anything about it. That is hardly surprising. It is difficult for a man wearing sectarian blinkers to see anything except the tip of his own nose.
In his last published speech to the Council of Ministers Chávez showed his impatience at the slow pace of developing the Communes as organs of popular power that he saw as a means of promoting the participation of the masses. One by one he subjected the ministers to a withering criticism for their lack of commitment to this aim:
“You may ask which are these so-called communes under construction? I am sure that the communes do not exist in the majority of these projects, be they small, medium, or large, that we are developing: from housing, creating new cities and centres of scientific and agricultural development, like in the plains of Maracaibo, in the municipality of Mara, even in the state of Sucre, where the large sardine processing plant that we recently opened is located, a huge plant, even in the glass businesses that we expropriated, la Faja de Orinoco [the Orinoco Belt], the communes do not exist. Where will we search for them, on the moon? Or on Jupiter?
“Comrades, permit me to be as tough as I can be, and as I should be, regarding the new self-criticism on this theme. Rafael Ramírez, for example, should already have around 20 communes in the PDVSA, in the Faja de Orinoco, but the PDVSA doesn’t believe that they should have anything to do with them. The problem is a cultural one, comrades. And I mention PDVSA in full recognition of this great industry.”
It is not difficult to see from these words that Hugo Chávez was extremely frustrated and dismayed by the failure to advance the cause of the revolution. But it is also possible to deduce from them a fundamental failure to understand how a revolution is carried out. Genuine organs of workers’ power (it is a matter of indifference whether they are called communes or soviets) can never be established from above – by the actions of government ministers. They are the result of the initiative of the revolutionary masses from below. In appealing to the Bolivarian ministers to perform this task, he was asking the elm tree to produce pears.
A few years before he died, President Chávez said to me: “There are too many governors and mayors who, after they are elected, surround themselves with wealthy men and beautiful women and forget about the people.” He referred on more than one occasion to the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy. This bureaucracy constitutes a bourgeois fifth column within the revolution. It is a cancer that gnaws at the bowels of the revolution and destroys it from within.
The ‘Bolivarian’ bureaucracy has not the slightest interest in promoting communes or any kind of workers’ control. On the contrary, the bureaucrats who run the show in PDVSA and other nationalised industries (many of whom are army officers with no connection whatsoever with socialism or the working class) see these things as a mortal danger and a threat to their interests.
Chávez always had tremendous confidence in the masses. He repeatedly attacked what he called the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy. On one occasion the president invited me to join him in his car passing along streets filled with cheering supporters. He pointed to them and said: “It is time that these people took control of the revolution.”
In a video recorded in a rally in Bolivia to mark the second inauguration of Evo Morales in January 2010, Chávez said the following:
“The transformation of the social structure will never be achieved unless we transform the economic structures… the transformation of the state…I was remembering that great Bolshevik…Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and that wonderful work The State and the Revolution…we have to finish dismantling the bourgeois state, the bourgeois state has to be extinguished and the new proletarian, socialist state has to be born, only in this way we will achieve the great goals that we have set for ourselves.”
Commenting on the Plan de la Patria (June 2012), which was the election program he stood on in the last election and is considered his political testament he said:
“Let us not fool ourselves: the socio-economic formation that still prevails in Venezuela is capitalist and rentier.”
“To move towards socialism, we need a popular power capable of dismantling the plots of oppression, exploitation and domination that continue to exist in Venezuelan society, [a power] capable of configuring a new society…This can only be achieved by completely pulverizing the bourgeois state structure that we inherited, which is still reproducing itself through the bad old practices, providing continuity for the invention of new forms of political administration.”
“This is a program that seeks to go beyond the point of no return. To use the expression of Antonio Gramsci, the old must be finally condemned to death, so that the birth of the new can take place in all its plenitude.”
But in Venezuela this aim was never achieved. The revolution stopped halfway and has been pushed back. The bourgeois state was not destroyed. The old bureaucrats were partially replaced by a new bureaucratic caste of careerist officials who have hijacked the revolution in their own interests. This counterrevolutionary bureaucracy which was repeatedly denounced by Chávez, constitutes a bourgeois fifth column which has betrayed the revolution, undermined it from within and prepared the way for counterrevolution.
An honest balance sheet is needed
Five years after the death of Hugo Chávez it is necessary to draw a balance sheet of the experience of the Bolivarian Revolution, to analyse both its positive and negative features. The negative features are now clear to all, including the most loyal friends of the revolution. But as the German proverb says, one must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
At its high point the Venezuelan Revolution provided a powerful stimulus to the growth of left-wing and revolutionary tendencies both in Latin America and internationally. At a time when the ideas of socialism and Marxism were under attack from all sides, it gave encouragement to those who were fighting for the cause of socialism on a world scale. The achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution in the fields of health, housing and education stood in sharp contrast to the vicious attacks on living standards that were inflicted on the workers of Europe and other countries in the name of capitalist austerity.
The Bolivarian Revolution made significant inroads through nationalising parts of the economy. The workers of Venezuela responded magnificently, introducing workers’ control into the workplaces and demanding the extension of nationalisation. All history shows that it is impossible to make half a revolution. By failing to destroy the economic power of the oligarchy, the revolution left itself open to a systematic campaign of economic sabotage that creates the conditions for a counterrevolutionary offensive.
Shortly after my first meeting with Chávez I wrote: “Sooner than many people expect, [the Venezuelan Revolution] will be faced with a stark choice: either liquidate the economic power of the oligarchy or else go soon to defeat.” That was written in 2004. Subsequent events showed that my first impressions were well-founded.
The fate of the Bolivarian Revolution
On many occasions over the last two decades the workers of Venezuela moved to establish workers’ control. During the counterrevolutionary attempt to sabotage the oil industry, the workers took over the installations and ran them, kicking out the old management. But what happened? The bureaucracy seized control and liquidated workers’ control. And this was done with the full support of the ministers – the very ministers to whom Chávez addressed his final appeal.
The truth is that many of these ministers were never convinced of Chávez’s ideas about socialism. Least of all did they share his faith in the possibility of the workers running industry and society. Many of them were educated in the school of Stalinism and have maintained a Stalinist and bureaucratic conception of ‘socialism’. Others do not believe in socialism at all.
Chávez’s instinct was always to go with the workers and peasants. But he faced a hostile bureaucracy, which continually frustrated his plans, countermanded his decrees and sabotaged the revolution. If he is to be criticised, it is for being too tolerant of these elements for too long. I believe that he did this because he feared divisions in the movement that could undermine the revolution. That was a fatal mistake. What undermines the revolution is corruption and careerism.
As Chávez told me there are people in public office, governors, mayors, officials of the PSUV and the Bolivarian movement who swear by Chávez in every other sentence, who wear red shirt but actually are opportunists, careerists, and corrupt elements who have nothing to do with the revolution. These elements have been blocking the revolutionary initiative of the masses and sabotaging the revolution from the very beginning. The burning desire of the masses has constantly thwarted by the resistance of those conservative and reformist elements who are constantly urging caution, and who, in practice, want to put the brakes on the revolution.
The left wing, reflecting the revolutionary aspirations of the masses, wishes to press forward with the revolution, overcome the resistance of the oligarchy and arm the people. The right wing (reformists and social democrats), in practice, wishes to call a halt to the revolution, or at least to slow it down and arrive at a compromise with the oligarchy and imperialism. The destiny of the revolution depends on the solution of this contradiction.
In order to defend the revolution and push it forward, it must confront its enemies and sweep all obstacles aside. But the biggest obstacle in the path of the revolution is the counterrevolutionary bureaucracy. The rank-and-file workers and peasants should take a big broom and sweep all this rubbish out of the movement and take control. Until this is done, the revolution will always be in danger.
In order to advance to socialism, you first have to break the economic power of the oligarchy that uses it to sabotage the revolutionary process. This means getting tough on economic sabotage, hoarding, the flight of capital and speculation. The only way to solve the economic problems is by nationalizing the land, the banks and the major industries under workers’ control.
A genuine planned economy is impossible while key points of the economy remain in private hands. You can have a capitalist market economy or a socialist planned economy, but you cannot have both. You cannot plan what you do not control, and you cannot control what you do not own.
No compromise is possible with the enemies of the revolution, any more than oil can be mixed with water. The whole logic of the situation is moving in the direction of an open confrontation between the classes. Upon the decision of this conflict the destiny of the revolution depends.
It is now up to the workers and peasants – the real motor force of the Bolivarian Revolution – to carry this task out to the end. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of Chávez’s legacy. What is needed is not sentimental and demagogic speeches, but to put into practice the socialist programme that Chávez always advocated: the abolition of capitalism through the expropriation of the bankers, landlords and capitalists. That is the authentic legacy of Hugo Chávez. That is what we must fight to carry out. We pledge ourselves to do everything in our power to step up the fight for socialism in Venezuela and throughout the world. That is the only way forward; the only way to honour the memory of Hugo Chávez.