Is Chavez's project 'socialism from above'?

By Marcus Pabian

Some revolutionary socialists remain convinced that no revolution has taken place and that the government of President Hugo Chavez is substituting ‘socialism from above’ in place of grassroots working-class struggle. However, the many gains made for workers and the poor in recent years — including improved living standards, increased control over some key workplaces and increased political power — would not have occurred without the massive struggles by workers and the poor against the capitalist class.

The most significant gains were made following the April 13, 2002 workers’ and soldiers’ revolution that restored Chavez as the country’s president, defeating a US-backed military coup led by Venezuela’s capitalist oligarchy and army high command that had been staged two days earlier. The coup was an attempt to stop the Chavez leadership taking Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA out of the hands of the capitalist oligarchy, who controlled PDVSA through their entrenched position in the state bureaucracy and had resisted his plan to redirect the enormous export earnings of the company to meeting the needs of Venezuela’s workers and peasants.

The illusions Chavez and his supporters had in the possibility of pursuing a “Third Way” between neoliberal capitalism and socialism were shattered by the coup. The political polarisation in Venezuelan society that his attempt to expropriate PDVSA provoked, culminating in the coup, also polarised the National Armed Forces of Venezuela (FAN). The top brass, drawn from wealthy families, had led the coup. But the majority of junior officers and soldiers, drawn from working class and peasant backgrounds, supported Chavez’s view that the country’s oil wealth should be used to meet the needs of the population as a whole, not just the capitalist elite. Rebel soldiers united with hundreds of thousands of the poor on the streets of every major city and rapidly smashed the coup regime.

In the months following the coup, the Chavez leadership purged the military of those who had supported the coup and were loyal to the interests of Venezuela’s capitalist oligarchy. This broke the capitalists’ control over the core institution of state power and left the armed forces composed overwhelmingly of those who had toppled the coup out of loyalty to the fundamental interests of the working people. As a result, Chavez’s government could rely on the support of the armed forces as it confronted the economic power of the capitalist class and the old pro-capitalist civil service bureaucracy; it could now act as a working people’s government. The political revolution to transfer state power from the capitalist class to the working people had been fundamentally accomplished.

The reliability of this new state power to act in the interests of the working people was demonstrated a few months after the April revolution, when the capitalist oligarchy launched a “strike” within PDVSA. In December 2002 the top capitalist managers of PDVSA sabotaged the company, reducing oil production from 3 million barrels per day to 150,000, crippling oil income in an attempt to destabilise the revolutionary government by creating a sharp economic crisis. They were joined by 18,000 middle and lower-level managers and well-paid technicians. Local police forces still loyal to the capitalist oligarchy tried defending PDVSA installations against oil production workers who attempted to undo the sabotage but were quickly brushed aside by the armed forces.

Socialist revolution

By the end of January 2003 the Chavez government, relying on army officers and oil industry workers, had taken control of PDVSA, the single biggest section of the national economy. The 18,000 managers and technicians involved in the sabotage were sacked. Centralising control of PDVSA in the hands of the working people’s government ushered in the socialist revolution — the first step in building a socialist state that organises expropriated capitalist property into a centrally planned economy that can meet the needs of working people rather than capitalist profits.

Taking control of PDVSA transformed the reach of the Chavez government. PDVSA not only had massive revenues but its offices and staff provided the working people’s government with the equivalent of a civil service to administer government programs such as the social missions. The Chavez government could now bypass the resistance of the old civil service bureaucracy. With the support of socialist Cuba, these changes have fuelled the social gains for working people.

Following the constitutional referendum victory of the Chavistas that removed term limits on government office-holders, an article by Chris Carlson in the February 25 issue of Socialist Worker, the weekly newspaper of the US International Socialist Organisation (ISO), commented, “But Chavez’s win also presents some obvious problems for Venezuela’s revolution”. With Chavez “always at the front”, he continued, “it makes it much harder for the revolutionary movement to take a course independent from Chavez’s desires, or be critical of his decisions”. Carlson concluded: “Time will tell whether or not the Bolivarian movement can solidify itself among the Venezuelan left and become independent of President Hugo Chavez’s leadership.”

What Carlson objected to about Chavez’s leadership was spelt out in the July-August 2007 issue of the ISO’s magazine, International Socialist Review, in an article by Lee Sustar, titled “Chavez and the meaning of twenty-first century socialism”. According to Sustar, “The question is whether Chavez’s Venezuela would evolve differently from previous attempts at economic nationalism in the Third World, which also presented themselves as variants of socialism … that tried to initiate socialism from above through radical reforms” and only resulted in a “muted effort to change the [capitalist] relations and methods of production”. For example, “The law passed by the National Assembly in the weeks after Chavez’s [third] inauguration [following the December 2006 presidential election], gave him the authority to govern by decree in specific areas. It was the enabling law that allowed Chavez to order the re-nationalization of the CANTV telecommunications company and to nationalize sectors of the oil industry still under direct foreign control.”

This approach, according to Sustar, is an “attempt to initiate a socialist transformation from above by circumventing the layers of state bureaucracy and elected officials tied to the status quo”. While, “the left wing of organized labor and the social movements have called for nationalization and greater transformation, Chavez’s decrees are essentially attempts to substitute for the class struggle to achieve those demands”. Chavez’s decrees, Sustar continued, “no matter how revolutionary or enlightened, can’t substitute for the self-organization of the working class, still less the workers’ democratic control that is the essence of genuine socialism. Reforms have been possible due to increases in oil revenue — but will this add up to revolution? The question remains as to whether, and how, this ‘socialism in distribution,’ … can be transformed into the direct rule of the working class.”

Rather than leading a socialist revolution, according to Sustar, “Chavez remains the arbiter of Venezuelan politics ... To workers and the poor, Chavez appears as a bulwark against reaction … To the bourgeoisie, Chavez is … someone who has so far diverted social struggles [a]way from an all-out attack on capitalist private property. To the capitalist class, a Chavez government is a lesser evil than a mass uprising of the sort provoked by the 2002 coup.” So the reason Sustar and the US ISO promote a movement independent of the Chavez leadership rests on their claim that while implementing “socialism from above” the Chavez leadership diverts workers’ struggles away from revolution, “an all-out attack” against capitalism that could lead to the “direct rule of the working class”.

April 2002 mass uprising

For the US ISO to maintain this view of the Chavez leadership it has to deny that a revolution took place on April 13, 2002. Otherwise it would have to recognise that the “restored” Chavez government was a result of a revolutionary class struggle for political power. According to Sustar, the April 2002 coup was not defeated by a mass workers’ and soldiers’ insurrection, it simply “collapsed” because business federation chief “[Pedro] Carmona’s power grab, the ‘coup within a coup’, alienated the [corrupt labour] CTV leaders who had backed it and isolated within the military key sections ... which rallied to Chavez and returned him to Miraflores under pressure from officers and soldiers loyal to the president”.

Sustar’s account of the coup lacks crucial facts such as the April 13 joint mobilisation between hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers on city streets, at major army barracks across the country and at the presidential palace, paralysing the business-military coup. This allowed the Chavista leadership to regroup and return Chavez to the presidency, but in a context in which the relationship of class forces — including at the level of state power — had been decisively altered to the advantage of the working people.

Sustar claims that the Venezuelan capitalist class regards the Chavez government as “a lesser evil than a mass uprising of the sort provoked by the 2002 coup”, but also argues that that mass uprising achieved nothing more than reinstating a “left-reformist”, essentially pro-capitalist, government!

Sustar claims that the mass uprising against the coup revealed “relatively little organized connection between Chavez and the masses”. But Sustar’s chronology simply omits the significant mass political struggle led by Chavez across the country for almost a year leading up to the coup. This struggle polarised the nation along class lines over whether or not to use PDVSA resources to meet the needs of Venezuela’s poor majority or to leave it in the hands of the capitalist oligarchy. This campaign involved Chavez calling on May 7, 2001, for the formation of grassroots action committees (“Bolivarian circles”) to defend the government against the capitalist oligarchy. On December 17 that year, 8000 Bolivarian circles were inaugurated by Chavez at a rally of 500,000 people called to protest the bosses’ strike of December 10 aimed at defending their control of PDVSA. Mobilisations of Chavez supporters and counter-mobilisations of the capitalist opposition intensified in the months leading up to the coup.

Sustar presents the uprising of the poor against the April 2002 coup as largely spontaneous. Yet in an interview with Richard Gott (author of Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution), shortly following the April coup, Chavez pointed to the operation of a civil-military alliance and its origin: “There was a rapid response to the coup, from both the military and the civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the country came out against the coup. And where was it that they went to? They assembled at the army barracks, and they did so because of the existing understanding that had been built up between officers and civilians through the Plan Bolivar. It was because of the contacts that had been made between the military and the poorest sectors of society that the people supported the army.” Plan Bolivar 2000 was launched in February 1999 and united 40,000 soldiers with local communities of poor people to address basic needs such as clean water and sanitation.

Contrary to the coup showing little organised connection between Chavez and the masses, “April 13, 2002”, the day of the defeat of the coup, was the synthesis of “two unfinished revolutions”, and the beginning “of the socialist and anti-imperialist revolution in Venezuela”, as Chavez commented early this year. The first “unfinished revolution” was the “Caracazo” rebellion in February 1989 by poor working people against neoliberal austerity measures introduced by the Perez government. This rebellion ended in a bloodbath when Perez ordered a military crackdown. These poor and working people “had no soldiers” on their side, Chavez said. The second “unfinished revolution” was the February 1992 rebellion of soldiers organised and led by Chavez’s underground movement within the military. It tried to overthrow the Perez government, but failed, as Chavez said, because the poor and working people “could not join us”.

Purge of armed forces

In the months following the defeated April 2002 coup, the Chavez government purged 400 of the coup leaders from the military, ending the capitalist oligarchy’s control of the army. However, Sustar claims only a reshuffle within the military took place: “Reshuffling top officers, as Chavez did after the failed 2002 coup, can’t erase the class divisions in the military.” Sustar warns that the “core of the capitalist state remains entrenched despite the revolutionary process and therefore will ultimately, and necessarily, reflect the interests of capital”. Therefore, the “question of state power remains before the Venezuelan working class”. But if state power had remained in the hands of the capitalist class following the mass uprising of April 2002, how was the Chavez government able to dispatch the armed forces in tandem with oil workers to break the PDVSA capitalist managers’ lockout in late 2002?

Sustar not only ignores the expropriation of PDVSA by the Chavez-led working people’s government, but he continues to present Chavez as someone who seeks to “divert” workers’ struggles away from an attack on capitalist property. Sustar claimed that in June 2007 “Chavez made it clear that the Bolivarian Revolution could exist with Venezuela’s elites”. He quotes Chavez saying, “We have no plan to eliminate the oligarchy, Venezuela’s bourgeoisie”.

Sustar conveniently cuts short the quote, while Chavez himself went on to say: “But, if the oligarchy does not understand this, if it does not accept the call to peace, to live with us, that the great revolutionary majority is making, if the Venezuelan bourgeoisie continues to desperately assault, using the refuges it has remaining, well then the Venezuelan bourgeoisie will continue to lose, one by one, the refuges it has remaining ... We respect you as Venezuelans, you [should] respect Venezuela, respect the homeland, respect our constitution, respect our laws. If you do not, you will regret it; if you do not, we will make you obey Venezuela’s laws.”

Chavez has kept this promise. The owners of the country’s biggest steel mill, the Sidor plant, refused to produce steel pipes for the Chavez governments’ national development plan, choosing to export them instead for a higher profit. Chavez warned Sidor’s owners in May 2007 to stop the exports or, “I would be obligated to nationalise it like I have done with CANTV”. Following Sidor’s refusal to comply, it was expropriated a year later by the Chavez government with the support of the Sidor workers.

While Sustar claims Chavez is attempting to create “socialism from above”, the radical transformation of economic relations in Venezuela reveals that this is a combined result of the Chavez-led working people’s government acting “from above” and the mass mobilisation of working people acting “from below”. This was shown by the defeat of the PDVSA bosses’ lockdown. Just days after it began, Chavez rallied two million people in Caracas to oppose the lockout. With the support of the government, oil production workers struggled around the clock to restart PDVSA’s operations, and the Chavez government directed the armed forces to defend, coordinate and provide technical support for this in a unified effort to see the industry begin to serve the needs of working people. That is how the socialist transformation is being carried out in Venezuela — as in all revolutions — from both “above” and “below”.