Inside Venezuela's revolution
The Real Venezuela: Making Socialism in the 21st Century
By Iain Bruce
Pluto Books (2008), 240 pages (pb), $52
Reviewed by Chris Atkinson
Iain Bruce’s The Real Venezuela provides a unique insight into Venezuelan working people’s attempt to build a “socialism of the 21st century”. Part of the book’s appeal lies in what it is not. It’s not like a lot of other books and essays about Venezuela’s revolution that are academic and abstract — concerned more with proving how “objective” and “unbiased” they are than with a warts-and-all class analysis of the daily struggle of Venezuelans to construct a bottom-up participatory socialist democracy.
In the preface to his three-volume early 1930s History of the Russian Revolution, former Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky wryly explained what happens to historians of revolutions who claim to “sit on the fence”: “In a time of revolution standing on the wall involves great danger ... if he climbs out on the wall dividing the two camps, it is only in the character of a reconnoiterer for the reaction ... The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies — open and undisguised — seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.”Bruce sets himself the aim of looking “at the experience of ordinary Venezuelan women and men, and to listen to their voices, as a way of getting inside the process” of revolutionary transformation of Venezuela. And get inside he does. The book is peppered with interviews with ordinary Venezuelans in the barrios, communal councils, workplace assemblies, land councils and the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), launched in 2007 by President Hugo Chavez. But the book doesn’t get lost in the detail as some books on the subject do.
Bruce manages to locate the various (and not always successful) efforts to build up popular power as part of an overall process of deepening democratisation — he’s able to see the forest through the trees. As he points out in the book’s introduction: “Seeking to ground this collective account in the concrete, lived experience of individual Venezuelans and the communities in which they live or work does not mean avoiding the more general, even abstract, realm of analysis and interpretation. On the contrary, many of the existing interpretations of the Bolivarian revolution err on the side of simplicity, not because they are too concrete but because they are too abstract. They often fail to take account of the multiplicity of lived experience that has found a place within it.”
Born of frustration
The idea for the book began in 2004-05 when Bruce was working as the BBC’s Caracas correspondent. “I realized I had many interviews and valuable stories”, Bruce explains, “but it was impossible in my work as a journalist to get answers to deeper questions about the impact of the project of the 21st century socialism on the lives of ordinary people; about the reality of its implementation”, he explained to the audience at the London launch of the book. “Hence arose the idea of the book as a means to expand on those stories and to track them over time.”
No doubt editorial interference from BBC management must have added to Bruce’s frustration. Before becoming the BBC’s Caracas correspondent, he worked as a writer, film-maker and journalist in Porto Alegre, Brazil. His previous book, The Porto Alegre Alternative, looked at mixed experiences of “participatory democracy” in Brazil. Since leaving the BBC he has been an adviser at Telesur, the progressive Latin American news channel based in Caracas. He is also a member of the Fourth International, an international association of Trotskyist parties. Bruce’s Venezuela book covers everything from the Chavez government’s oil-revenue funded health and education programs in the barrios to land reform and participatory democracy in workplaces to the neighbourhood communal councils. Each of the book’s five chapters is devoted to an analysis of how the socialist project has developed since 2004 in particular arenas of struggle. The first, and I’d argue most important, is that it focuses on what made much of this possible — the reallocation of Venezuela’s oil wealth away from the coffers of the capitalist oligarchy and into an array of social spending as a result of the purge and re-organisation of Venezuelan’s national oil company PDVSA, following the defeat of the April 2002 right-wing coup and the December 2002 shut-down of the oil industry by the oil bosses.
Bruce is keen to emphasise the novelty of Venezuela’s revolutionary experience. As he explains, “although it’s early days yet, one of the first and most obvious conclusions is that none of the old models fit very well — which is not to say they are useless, or do not remain necessary points of departure. The challenge, which has only begun to be taken up, was not to judge how well or not the Bolivarian process shaped up to the old frameworks of the left, but to see how examining and accompanying this process could help us to test, refine, reinvent (or indeed simply junk) these old frameworks.”
Where’s the revolution?
He goes on to write: “A simple example: where exactly was the ‘revolution’ in the Bolivarian revolution? Did it happen when Chavez was elected in 1998? Did it happen when the people descended from the ranchos above Caracas in April 2002 and sent the military and business leaders of the coup packing? Is it still waiting to happen? Maybe there never was any real prospect of a revolution (an easy solution for conservatives and doctrinaire radicals). Or maybe it has been and remains a combination of several of these moments. Either way, it doesn’t look like or feel much like the storming of the Winter Palace, the liberated zones of the Red Army, or Fidel and Che with long beards riding into Havana on jeeps.”
A socialist revolution involves the mass mobilisation of the working people to replace the institutions that organise the rule of the capitalist class over society with institutions that enable these masses to forcibly defend and advance their class interests against those of the capitalists. But because Chavez came to the head of the Venezuelan government through a presidential election at the end of 1998, Bruce thinks that “the central levers of power in Venezuela — including the office of the presidency itself — remain institutionally located, even ‘trapped’, within the old administrative structures” created by the capitalist class. This, he argues is the “central problem for the Bolivarian movement” posing the issue as “how do you get around the existing apparatus, when you first came to power through it (that is you were elected to office)”.
Bruce is thus unable to see that the mass “civilian-soldier” insurrection of April 2002 shattered the core institution of capitalist political power — the army commanded by pro-capitalist officers, enabling the Bolivarian movement to retake the presidency with a revolutionised army, and then to be able to use this army, in collaboration with the oil production workers, to expropriate PDVA from the capitalist oligarchy. The Chavistas were then able to use the revolutionised PDVSA to build up new administrative structures — the social missions and communal councils parallel to the “old administrative structures” of the bureaucratic “civil service”. (For a fuller account of the April 2002 revolution see Marcus Pabian’s article “Is Chavez an obstacle to the Venezuelan revolution?’ in DA#7.) While the old adminstrative structures need to be fully swept away and fully replaced by the new ones, it is absurd to claim that Chavez is “trapped” within the old structures, as he was prior to April 13, 2002.
Bruce’s failure to recognise that there has been a radical transformation, as a result of the action of the masses, of the class nature of the Venezuelan government and the armed forces, has led at least one reviewer — Latin American Review of Books editor Gavin O’Toole — to infer that Bruce’s book was written “as a way of drawing attention to the shortcomings of existing socialist theories”. Bruce’s own inability to apply the Marxist theory of the state and revolution to the class struggle in Venezuela aside, his book still provides useful material on the many of the key developments in that struggle over the last decade.