Today a very old friend asked me for an analysis of what’s happening in Venezuela. In many ways there are people much more familiar with what’s happening on the ground like Greg Wilpert but my purpose is not to duplicate that information but to put Venezuela and other “pink tide” states into a theoretical framework
Leftist opinion on the crisis in Venezuela tends correctly to blame American meddling and the local bourgeoisie for trying to make the people “cry uncle” as Reagan infamously described his intervention in Nicaragua. Falling oil prices helped make the Venezuela government more vulnerable to reactionary forces. Some leftists wrote about how “rentier states” (a state which derives all or a substantial portion of its national revenues from the sale or rent of indigenous resources to external clients, namely oil exports here) like Venezuela will never break out of the cycles of underdevelopment as if a country relying on commodity exports such as oil, bananas, and meat could ever compete with industrialized countries. Cuba certainly is a rentier state as well but it has not suffered the same kind of crisis as Venezuela except for the “special period” that ensued when the USSR went capitalist.
There are any number of socialist critiques making the rounds that are hard to argue with. For example, the ISO published an article in September 2017 making the case for self-emancipation in Venezuela:
The country is currently run by two ruling classes. First, there’s the “bolibourgeoisie” made up of state bureaucrats drawn from the Bolivarian movement that has developed since the consolidation of the Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in power. Then there are the good old capitalists who have always controlled the production and distribution of goods in Venezuela’s economy.
With the exception of some degree of localized communal production, these two ruling classes dominate every aspect of Venezuelan society. There is no real self-emancipation happening, which is the cornerstone of socialism.
You get the same thing in Left Voice, an online newspaper put out by a group that emerged out of Nahuel Moreno’s Trotskyist movement, except that it is much tougher on Maduro:
Under the illusion of defending the Bolivarian revolution, which was never a revolution, Maduro has consolidated power and taken away the democratic rights of the Venezuelan people, such as the violent repression of protests, the persecution of activists and the subordination of unions to the government. “Socialist” Venezuela is nothing but a mirage embellished by official demagoguery. Venezuela is not and never was socialist, so we can and must criticize Maduro and Chávez from the left. In response to the economic and political crisis, the Maduro government has further squeezed the working class and implemented austerity.
Stop and think about this for a minute. If the communes promoted by Hugo Chavez had anything in common with the Paris Commune, would this have turned the tide? Don’t forget that the Paris Commune was defeated because it faced overwhelming military odds. Sometimes, no amount of democracy can compensate for unfavorable relationship of forces.
Furthermore, let’s say that the Venezuelan communes were not only the most democratic and “self-emancipated” institutions since 1917 but also managed to manufacture atomic weapons just like North Korea, thus guaranteeing the country’s ability to ward off attacks.
How would this have made a difference when the price of oil was plummeting? Any country that hopes to break from capitalism will have to survive in a world where market relations prevail. In Cuba, this means putting up with tourist hotels, self-aggrandizing petty proprietors, prostitution, and other ills that capitalism breeds, even if they are outweighed by the benefits of planning, a monopoly on foreign trade, and public ownership of the means of production.
Unlike Cuba, Venezuela never had the benefit of being able to liquidate the bourgeoisie. When the USSR collapsed in 1990, it meant that countries would have to go it alone. The first country sacrificed on the altar of perestroika was Nicaragua. Hugo Chavez clearly understood that his options were limited and tried to navigate between the desire of ordinary people for a better life and the demands put on him by a powerful ruling class that adopted a two-prong approach. One wing of the ruling class sought to gain from its partnership with the Chavistas while the other hoped to rule in its own name. That is what is going on right now with the budding coup.
In a perfect world, the Latin American revolutionary movement would have emerged after the collapse of the Guevarist guerrilla movements of the 60s and 70s. It would have worked collectively to turn the “pink tide” of the past ten years into a “red tide”. The Venezuelan communes would have been replicated in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Instead of each country seeking its own particular national development based on agro-exports and oil, a true Bolivarian revolution would have integrated the industry of Brazil and Argentina with the less developed nations whose commodities would have provided badly needed foreign revenue.
What prevents the Latin American left from moving in this direction? To some extent, it is a function of the revolutionary left remaining trapped in the nationalist framework of the “pink tide”. Coordination is lacking and sectarian fetishes keep groups divided ideologically, as if how to characterize the USSR in the 1930s was a litmus test.
Karl Marx ends Civil War in France with a judgement on the historical significance of a certain Parisian occurrence: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”
The key word is harbinger.