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Marxism and the Venezuelan revolution (book review)

November 11, 2005

Alan Woods. The Venezuelan Revolution: A Marxist Perspective. London: Wellred Books ( 2005.

Can a small Marxist current hope to influence the course of events in times of a revolutionary uprising, or are they condemned to an existence of sideline critics, never to influence the broader working class movement?

A new book by British Marxist Alan Woods puts that question to the test in a most challenging way — in the midst of the unfolding Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. The Venezuelan Revolution: A Marxist Perspective consists of 14 articles written by Woods between the failed pro-imperialist coup of April 2002 and the Bolivarians’ turn to socialism in early 2005. Published earlier this year, the book has much to teach us about the role of Marxists in a revolutionary upsurge.

Many revolutionary-minded groups or parties in the world have been skeptical and standoffish toward Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. It confounds their self-conceived truths: much of the Bolivarian leadership came unexpectedly from the officer corps; the Bolivarian program was not openly socialist in its beginning stages; its course of action corresponded to no one’s blueprint. President Hugo Chávez was pegged by most of them as a radical bourgeois figure.

By contrast, the current led by Alan Woods, the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) (www.marxist.com2), grasped the importance of the Venezuelan uprising soon after the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998. It has devoted considerable resources to building an international solidarity campaign, Hands Off Venezuela (www.handsoffvenezuela.org3).

The IMT understood early that Marxists in Venezuela should support the Bolivarian movement and be part of it, rather than stand back and criticize it from the sidelines. They have worked with energy and some success to influence the Bolivarians, gaining favorable mentions from Chávez himself.

Expropriate capitalist property

Alan Woods’ main point, reflected in each of his articles, is that the Venezuelan revolution cannot stop half way, leaving the U.S.-backed right-wing oligarchy in control of decisive sectors of the economy and state apparatus. “The counterrevolutionary forces are not reconciled to defeat,” Woods states. “They are increasingly desperate … determined and violent.”

Venezuelan working people must expropriate capitalist property and lay the basis for socialism, he argues. “Either the greatest of victories or the most terrible of defeats.” (Pages 110, 133)

This basic premise of Marxism, confirmed at each stage of the Venezuelan struggle, has won an increasing hearing among the Bolivarians. Chávez now ridicules the notion that Venezuela can find liberation within capitalism.

Learning from Chávez

Another key lesson is not stated explicitly, and may be unintended. Woods articles show how Marxists can learn from a living revolution.

In the opening chapters, written from London and Buenos Aires just after the 2002 coup attempt, Woods is close to dismissive of Bolivarian leader Hugo Chávez. At that time, Woods wrote that Chávez is “inclined to be inconsistent” and has “often displayed indecision.” He “temporized and attempted to conciliate the counter-revolutionaries” which was “a fatal mistake.” (Pages 16, 20, 43)

The book then breaks off: there is a gap of 16 months before the next article.

Then, in April 2004, Woods attended an international conference in Caracas in which Chávez, displaying his characteristic cordial generosity, set out to forge a link with Woods, one of the most prominent international solidarity activists. Woods learned that Chávez was not only keenly interested in Marxism but was familiar with the British Marxist’s own writings. “He told me he was not a Marxist because he had not read enough Marxist books,” Woods commented. “But he is reading them now.” (Page 62)

The next part of the book is a treasure: two slashing polemics against sectarian attitudes toward the Venezuelan movement.

“For the sectarian mentality, a revolution must conform to a pre-established scheme,” Woods writes. The sectarian “establishes an ideal norm and rejects anything … that does not conform.”

Woods ridicules those who would build the revolutionary party by proclamation. “Three men and … a drunken parrot gather in a café in Caracas and proclaim the Revolutionary Party.” And if the masses do not join, the sectarian says, “Well, that’s their problem.” (Pages 65, 83) These ideas are not new, but coming to us from the battlefields of a living revolution, they ring with great authority.

In the pages that follow, Woods writes with warm respect of Chávez, “the man who inspired this magnificent movement and provided it with a leadership and a banner.” (Page 162)

Crucial omissions

Nevertheless, the Marxism advanced in Alan Woods’ book remains incomplete.

Cuba: The Venezuelan Revolution condemns U.S. attacks on Cuba, but not a word can be found in this book of Cuba’s role in the Venezuelan revolution. Yet Cuba’s revolutionary leaders have had a much stronger influence on Venezuela’s Bolivarians than all the smaller Marxist currents put together.
The political alliance of Hugo Chávez with the Cuban Marxists began a few months after Chávez was released from prison in 1994, when he went to Cuba for discussions with Fidel Castro. Since Chávez’ first election to president in 1998, Cuba has contributed tens of thousands of volunteers to deliver health, educational, and recreational services to Venezuelan working people. The two governments have a close diplomatic, economic, and political alliance. The book’s silence on this important alliance creates a highly misleading picture of the Bolvarian revolutionary process. It raises a crucial question: does the author view Cuba’s role in Venezuela as positive or negative?

Anti-imperialist alliance: And what about ALBA? The Bolivarian Agreement for the Americas (ALBA) is the Venezuelan government’s proposal for non-exploitative economic cooperation among Latin American countries. It was advanced in 2003 as an alternative to imperialist-directed “Free Trade of the Americas” fraud. Cuba endorsed ALBA in its December 2004 treaty with Venezuela.
ALBA’s appeal and relevance was made astonishingly clear at the recent summit meeting in Argentina of political leaders of the Americas. The imperialist “free trade” proposition was proclaimed dead on arrival by the masses who rallied there and, not coincidentally, gave Chávez a hero’s welcome.

Woods does not mention ALBA. Does he perhaps have it in mind when he warns Venezuela against relying on “friendly relations” with Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba. (Page 119) The international, anti-imperialist dimension of the Venezuelan revolution is simply disregarded throughout the book

Democratic tasks: Woods does not take up the ongoing democratic tasks of the Venezuelan process. Such struggles as that of Venezuela’s people of color for equality; that of women pressing into political life and demanding their rights; that of workers in the “informal sector” striving for a secure livelihood; that of the oppressed indigenous peoples to which the Bolivarians have given such close attention — all are neglected. Nor does Woods acknowledge Chávez’s role as a defender of the world’s ecology against capitalist devastation.

Woods also fails to give clear support to the struggles of peasants who wish to divide up the great estates, arguing instead that the estates should operate as collective farms. (Page 172)

All these questions are crucial to forging the revolutionary alliance necessary to overturning capitalism in Venezuela. By omitting them, the book displays a limited understanding of the complex dynamics of the Venezuelan revolution.

Nationalizing capitalist property: Woods presents the need to nationalize capitalist property in a purely administrative way. “For the immediate expropriation of the property of the imperialists and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie…. An emergency decree to this effect must be put to the National Assembly,” Woods wrote soon after the failed coup in 2002. (Page 17)

But working-class nationalization — as opposed to a capitalist transfer of formal ownership — can only be carried out by a mass movement of working people who have become convinced through experience that there is no alternative and who are ready to assume management responsibility. Provided the workers are not forced into premature action, they must prepare for the challenge of managing production. Otherwise, for example, their expropriation of foreign-owned companies may lead to their immediate shutdown for lack of raw materials, technical inputs, and customers.

There is a sameness in The Venezuelan Revolution: the articles span three years but advocate an identical course of action — immediate expropriation — at every turn. The book displays no sense of tactics, no sense of when to advance, when to pause, when to sound out the enemy’s willingness to compromise, when to form alliances.

On all these points, The Venezuelan Revolution fails to convey key lessons of the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia, lessons that are well understood by Cuba’s revolutionary leadership.

Woods sees in Venezuela a dichotomy between two currents: on the one hand, petty-bourgeois revolutionary democracy, led by Chávez; and on the other, Marxism, represented in his view above all by the IMT’s own Revolutionary Marxist Current. (Page 93)

But on the key challenges facing the Venezuela revolution, the record of the Chávez leadership is stronger than the course proposed by The Venezuelan Revolution. The Bolivarians’ course has led not to defeat, as Woods warned, but to victory after victory.

Toward a revolutionary party

Judging by this book alone, the political line of Alan Woods and the International Marxist Tendency is inflexible, one-sided, and veers off course. Yet the IMT, as Chávez himself has acknowledged, has made an undeniable contribution to the broader Bolviarian movement of which it is part.

Surely there is a lesson here for all of us in the splintered and fragmented international socialist movement.

The revolutionary party for which we strive will be built through living processes like those we see in Venezuela today or in Cuba before it. Under the impact of an upsurge of struggles, new leadership forces will converge with the best forces in existing currents to form a unified movement. All existing currents will be challenged to subordinate their prized separateness to a broader purpose.

It is to the credit of Alan Woods that he and his current have been able to travel at least a part of that road together with Venezuela’s revolutionary Bolivarians.

One Comment
  1. Hugo Chavez is what I call a pragmatic socialist whose correct application of socialism does not veer towards the insane. Imagine if he nationalized all industries and collectivized agriculture. What would have become of Venezuela. Aside from those, he knows how to feel the people’s pulse. He knows that if he goes to the extreme, the social democrats and the socialists who make up 90% of the whole Leftist community would not have elected him to power. These stand as basic lessons for those aspiring for power invoking Leftism or socialism with a human face. (And he is no stool as alleged by the CIA).

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