Workers Vanguard No. 1117
8 September 2017
Bourgeois Populism in Crisis
Venezuela: U.S. Hands Off!
Venezuela’s bourgeois-nationalist regime has been in the crosshairs of the U.S. imperialists since the late Hugo Chávez took office in 1999. His crime in the eyes of the U.S. rulers? Chávez, a military officer turned populist strongman, used some of the country’s oil profits to institute social programs that benefited the poor, while denouncing Washington’s barbaric economic and military policies in Latin America and elsewhere. Already in 2002, the U.S. and its local puppets in the reactionary bourgeois opposition orchestrated a failed coup against Chávez. In 2015, Barack Obama ludicrously declared Venezuela a threat to U.S. national security, imposing sanctions against the government of Nicolás Maduro, who came to power after Chávez died in 2013. Now the racist demagogue Donald Trump is threatening to use the “military option” and has imposed new sanctions against the regime.
The U.S. and European imperialists—who have condemned millions of Venezuelans to dire poverty by looting the country’s wealth for more than a century—are today, with consummate hypocrisy, wailing about a “humanitarian crisis” and the trampling of “democracy.” We stand against any attempt by the U.S. imperialists to effect “regime change” in Venezuela—whether through direct military intervention or an imperialist-backed coup—while maintaining our political opposition to the Chavista regime. The Venezuelan opposition is a right-wing, motley crew of imperialist-backed forces, which includes parties infamous for their own bloody repression of workers and poor, including the massacre of up to 3,000 people during the 1989 Caracazo protests against skyrocketing prices. At the same time, we underline that the government of Maduro, like that of Chávez before him, is a bourgeois government, and therefore the class enemy of the proletariat and oppressed.
As Marxists, we politically oppose both the “Bolivarian” bourgeois nationalists and their neoliberal opponents. The Venezuelan proletariat, centered on the oil workers, must be mobilized as an independent force, championing all of the exploited and impoverished in the fight for workers power. This requires forging a revolutionary vanguard party in opposition to the imperialists and independent of all wings of bourgeois politics.
The right-wing opposition, having gained control of the National Assembly in 2015 for the first time in 16 years, has sought to bring down the Maduro government by means of a recall referendum and early elections. It has also organized street protests replete with murderous assaults against black people and other suspected Chavistas, as well as attacks on buildings providing social services to the poor. In response, Maduro and his government have tightened their bonapartist grip, banning protests, declaring a state of emergency and strengthening the powers of the capitalist state executive and Maduro’s hand-picked Supreme Court. These repressive measures represent a deadly danger to the working class, especially when it raises its head as an independent force.
Trump’s threats were a response to the July 30 elections for a Constituent Assembly convoked by Maduro in an attempt to shore up his rule by supplanting parliament, which he has since stripped of its powers. Maduro is today using the constituent assembly against his bourgeois opponents. Historically, the constituent assembly has been used by bourgeois rulers to derail the struggle for workers revolution. Genuine Marxists oppose, on principle, the call for a constituent assembly, which is a call for a new capitalist government, with the parliamentary edifice of bourgeois democracy serving to mask the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Our goal is to mobilize the working class to sweep away the capitalist state and its repressive apparatus (the cops, courts and military) through socialist revolution (see “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13). As Marxist leader Rosa Luxemburg put it amid the 1918-19 German Revolution:
“So what is gained through this cowardly detour called the national assembly? The bourgeoisie’s position is strengthened, the proletariat is weakened and bewildered with empty illusions, time and energy are dissipated and lost in ‘discussions’ between wolf and lamb. In a word, it plays into the hands of all those elements whose good intention is to cheat the proletarian revolution of its socialist aims and to castrate it into a bourgeois-democratic revolution.
“But the question of the national assembly is not a tactical question, nor a question of what is ‘easier.’ It is a question of principle, of the socialist perception of the revolution....
“The national assembly is an outdated legacy of the bourgeois revolutions, an empty shell, a stage prop from the time of petty-bourgeois illusions of a ‘united people,’ of the bourgeois state’s ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’.”
—“The National Assembly,” Die Rote Fahne, 20 November 1918, reprinted in The German Revolution and the Debate On Soviet Power (1986)
U.S. Seeks to Reassert Control of Its “Backyard”
Despite reports of localized actions against the Maduro regime by disgruntled elements in the military, Maduro, for now, seems to have the support of the generals and the police force. The regime also has a Chavista militia, which reportedly has 400,000 members. At the same time, the increasingly untenable economic and political situation has diminished support among the workers and poor for the Maduro regime and its “Bolivarian Revolution.” It is precisely the inability of the bourgeois populists to fulfill the needs of the masses that opens the door for the reactionary opposition forces, who in power would impose fierce repression, savage austerity and a bloody settling of accounts with those presumed to have supported Chávez.
U.S. vice president Mike Pence recently toured Latin America to line up Washington’s neocolonial puppets. The CIA has been working together with the Mexican and Colombian governments toward the ouster of Maduro, while other brutal Latin American regimes have joined the U.S. imperialists in preaching “democracy” to Venezuela. CIA chief Mike Pompeo recently invoked some of the usual international bogeymen to justify U.S. intervention: “The Cubans are there; the Russians are there, the Iranians, Hezbollah are there.” Pompeo left China off his blacklist.
The Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state has replaced the U.S. and its institutions, like the World Bank, as the main provider of loans to Latin America, with Venezuela receiving about half of these. The U.S. imperialists see this as a slap in the face as they seek to reassert control over their “backyard.” Because China is not a capitalist country, its foreign investments are not driven by the need to maximize profit, but by the need to accrue resources for economic development. Venezuela is allowed to repay China through oil shipments that have often been deferred.
Sections of the U.S. bourgeoisie would like to bring Maduro down by cutting off all oil imports from Venezuela. This action has been opposed not only by U.S. refiners who depend on Venezuelan oil, but also by those who do not want to risk a spike in oil prices. Their priority is to keep oil prices low in order to weaken countries like Russia, Iran and Venezuela itself. The U.S. bourgeoisie is also gunning for Maduro because it knows that without the oil Venezuela has been shipping to the Cuban deformed workers state in exchange for medical personnel, Cuba will be further strangled economically. The aim of the imperialists is to foment capitalist counterrevolution in Cuba.
Unlike the fraudulent “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela, the social revolutions in Cuba, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Laos overturned capitalist rule in these countries. We stand for the unconditional military defense of these deformed workers states against imperialist attack and domestic capitalist counterrevolution. We also recognize that the Stalinist bureaucratic misrulers are parasitic layers sitting on top of proletarian property forms. Their nationalist dogma of building “socialism in one country” and its attendant ideology of “peaceful coexistence” with world imperialism are obstacles to the defense of the workers states and the extension of social revolution to capitalist countries. We fight for proletarian political revolutions to sweep away the ruling Stalinist bureaucracies and establish regimes based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism.
Fault Lines of Race and Class
Venezuela is in the throes of a profound social crisis stemming from the country’s economic nose dive following the collapse in oil prices, which went from an international peak of $115 a barrel in 2014 to less than $35 a barrel by early 2016. Over 95 percent of government revenues comes from the country’s oil industry, especially the nationalized PDVSA oil company. A continuing drop in oil production and prices along with massive debt repayments to the international financial bloodsuckers have led to a severe economic contraction in Venezuela, with widespread shortages of food, basic goods and medicine. Inflation has skyrocketed, leaving the local currency worthless. A U.S.-dollar black market of parasitic hoarders and speculators has bloomed. This is an entirely predictable repetition of the periodic economic crises faced by Venezuela throughout the 20th century due to fluctuating oil prices. It is incumbent on workers in the U.S. to demand: Cancel the debt!
Chávez believed that capitalist stability could be purchased by using some of Venezuela’s oil riches to fund social programs that would lift Venezuela’s most downtrodden out of abject misery—a program that was only viable so long as oil prices remained high. Like previous populist rulers in Venezuela and throughout Latin America, Chávez used anti-imperialist rhetoric to cement support for his regime. This enraged a section of Venezuela’s bourgeois, lily-white “oligarchy” who, while continuing to line their pockets under Chávez, abhorred the idea of giving anything to the poor. Even in the midst of the current crisis, the Venezuelan capitalists and wealthy petty bourgeoisie are quite comfortable—with their easy access to U.S. dollars, homes in Miami and heavily guarded country clubs. While thousands of working people line up for food, there is a reported boom in luxury car sales in Caracas.
In a country in which less than half the population identifies as white, vicious racism—a legacy of the country’s history of slavery, which was maintained until the mid 19th century—is inseparable from the class hatred of the bourgeoisie and upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie toward working people. The opposition repugnantly caricatured Chávez, the first non-white president of the country, as an ape, and his supporters as monkeys. More than 20 black and poor people suspected of being Chavistas have been burned alive by anti-Maduro protesters—racist lynchings reminiscent of the Jim Crow American South.
The Dead End of Bourgeois Populism
Most self-proclaimed Marxists promoted the lie that Venezuela under Chávez was on the road to socialism, and consequently called to complete the “revolution.” Despite cheap “socialist” rhetoric, Chávez made clear over a decade ago that his “Bolivarian Revolution” was “not in contradiction with private property.” Chávez’s main concern was to prop up the country’s faltering oil profits. He moved to discipline the oil workers union and to increase the efficiency of the state-owned oil industry, while pressing the OPEC oil cartel to raise prices. Thanks to such efforts, and in the interest of political stability, he was initially supported by much of the Venezuelan ruling class.
Like Maduro, Chávez was no stranger to repressing protesting workers. In 2007, state police and military forces fired on workers from the Sanitarios Maracay factory who were calling for the nationalization of their company, injuring 14 and arresting 21. Chávez also sought to strengthen the repressive power of the state with his (failed) 2007 constitutional referendum, which would have given Chávez wider powers, such as the right to declare an unlimited state of emergency. We called for a “no” vote in this referendum, based on our principled, Marxist opposition to any measure that strengthens the capitalist state (see “Break with Bourgeois Populism! For Workers Revolution! WV No. 907, 1 February 2008).
The Chavistas’ social programs to ameliorate poverty are entirely defensible, but in no way do they represent a socialist transformation. That the country with the largest known oil reserves in the world is in the grip of such a crisis demonstrates that Venezuela remains subordinated to the imperialist order. The U.S. continues to be the country to which Venezuela exports most of its oil. The country imports an overwhelming amount of its basic food and manufactured goods, with domestic production of rice, corn and coffee having declined by about 60 percent in the last decade.
As we underlined in “Venezuela: Populist Nationalism vs. Proletarian Revolution” (WV No. 860, 9 December 2005): “The recent history of Venezuela amply demonstrates that neoliberalism and populism are nothing but two faces of the same coin, sometimes carried out by the same bourgeois regime in different periods.” In the mid 1970s Democratic Action (AD) president Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalized Exxon, Shell and Mobil’s Venezuelan holdings (with compensation) and invested heavily in social programs, education and health care while oil prices were high. But when the oil market later crashed, Pérez enforced sweeping social cuts and privatizations, while carrying out brutal repression such as the 1989 Caracazo massacre.
The nationalist populism espoused by Chávez and Maduro has served to block the struggle against imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation by binding the working class and oppressed more closely to the capitalist state. The national bourgeoisies of countries of belated development are dependent on foreign capital and are tied to the imperialists by a thousand threads—they are incapable of breaking the imperialist yoke. Above all, they are hostile to and fearful of the working class—the only force capable of achieving genuine national emancipation.
Reformist Opponents of Workers Rule
During the “golden years” of the Chávez regime, the bulk of the pseudo-Trotskyist left jumped on the bandwagon of the “Bolivarian Revolution.” Particularly enthusiastic was Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (IMT, formerly led by the late Ted Grant), who boasted of acting as Chávez’s “Trotskyist” advisers. With the oil bonanza long gone, Chávez dead and his successors tumbling, the IMT’s Venezuelan organization, Lucha de Clases, now complains about the “incompetence” of the “reformist bureaucracy”—i.e., the Maduro capitalist regime. Nevertheless, they themselves—as a component part of Maduro’s own bourgeois Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela—strive to reform it from within by vowing to defend “Chávez’ legacy.” As we wrote in our 2005 article:
“In foisting Chávez off as a champion of the poor and oppressed, the IMT et al. help set workers up for slaughter. Tying the working class and its organizations to any bourgeois ruler only serves to impede independent working-class struggle. In opposition to groups like the IMT, Marxists seek to prepare the Venezuelan working class to effectively combat the murderous forces of bourgeois reaction, whether led by Chávez or his bourgeois opponents.”
In contrast to the IMT, most pseudo-Trotskyists are defecting from their former Chavista camp as Maduro’s popularity plummets. From Argentina, the Partido Obrero (PO) of Jorge Altamira called to “Defeat the right wing without giving any political support to official Chavismo” (Prensa Obrera, 27 July) and argued that “the fight against right-wing reaction can only triumph with the methods of workers’ class struggle, with total political independence from the de facto ruling clique.” This is rich coming from an organization that used to take pride in having backed Lt. Colonel Chávez’s failed coup in 1992 and in having given him political support during the 2004 recall referendum orchestrated by Venezuelan reactionaries; the PO also called for a vote to Bolivian bourgeois nationalist Evo Morales in 2005 and supported the Greek bourgeois populists of Syriza in 2012.
In the 2012 elections, the PO refused to support Chávez, voting instead for Orlando Chirino, a Chavista trade-union bureaucrat and pupil of the late pseudo-Trotskyist Nahuel Moreno, who was at times critical of Chávez. Chirino’s organization, the Partido Socialismo y Libertad (PSL), was—according to the PO itself—seeking rapprochement with the racist, right-wing opposition. Today, the PSL is grotesquely backing the opposition’s mobilizations, claiming that they display “the Venezuelan people and workers’ tremendous will to fight” (uit-ci.org, July 2017).
Committed to the capitalist order, the Latin American pseudo-Trotskyists call for one variant or another of the constituent assembly. The PO calls for “a sovereign Constituent Assembly convoked by a workers government” to “provide a real democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist way out of the crisis” in Venezuela (Prensa Obrera online, 18 April). In fact, this would mean a workers government ceding power to a capitalist government. From Buenos Aires, Altamira called for a boycott of Maduro’s Constituent Assembly, which he denounced as a “pseudo-Constituent.” But his Venezuelan cothinkers in Opción Obrera thought differently, and called instead to defend the Constituent Assembly to prevent a “fascist coup” by the bourgeois opposition (Opción Obrera, 18 July). In the Constituent Assembly elections, they supported one Julio Polanco, another trade-union bureaucrat who described himself as “loyal to the legacy of comandante Chávez.” Be it in Venezuela or Argentina, the Altamiraites’ claims to proletarian “political independence” have as much substance as Chávez/Maduro’s claims to “socialism.”
Like the Altamiraites, the neo-Morenoite Liga de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (LTS), Venezuelan section of the Argentina-based Fracción Trotskista-Cuarta Internacional (FT-CI), calls for “a true Free and Sovereign Constituent Assembly,” supposedly as “a bridge for workers and poor people to rise up with their own politics as a class.” No matter how “sovereign,” a constituent assembly is a bourgeois parliament. While the LTS considered Maduro’s Constituent Assembly a “farce” and abstained on it, their Mexican comrades supported Mexico City’s 2016 Constituent Assembly. And they had no scruples about taking money from the capitalist state for their campaign for that body (see “Ciudad de México: El circo antidemocrático de la asamblea constituyente,” Espartaco No. 46, October 2016). In this they follow in the footsteps of their Argentinian comrades, who also rake in the cash from the bourgeois state through their election campaigns.
For Permanent Revolution!
The call for a constituent assembly is counterposed to Leon Trotsky’s perspective of the permanent revolution. The aspirations of working people to national liberation and democratic rights—including land to the peasants—as well as an end to capitalist exploitation can only be realized through socialist revolution. When ostensible Marxists raise the call for a constituent assembly, they are parroting the Menshevik/Stalinist conception of “two-stage” revolution: The first stage consists of a supposed bourgeois-democratic revolution; the second stage, supposedly the fight for socialist revolution, has always consisted of the crushing of the workers by the bourgeois rulers.
In his work The Permanent Revolution (1930), Leon Trotsky, who together with V. I. Lenin led the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, described how Lenin summed up that revolution:
“In a bourgeois society with already developed class antagonisms there can only be either the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, open or disguised, or the dictatorship of the proletariat. There cannot be any talk of an intermediate regime. Every democracy, every ‘dictatorship of democracy’ (the ironical quotation marks are Lenin’s) is only a veil for the rule of the bourgeoisie, as the experience of the most backward European country, Russia, showed in the epoch of its bourgeois revolution, i.e., the epoch most favorable to the ‘dictatorship of democracy’.”
The working class must fight to replace the dictatorship of capital with the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which workers and peasants will themselves govern through soviets on the basis of a planned and collectivized economy.
Eliminating all forms of exploitation and oppression of the workers, peasants, urban and rural poor requires socialist revolution and its extension internationally, especially to the imperialist centers, to establish an internationally planned and collectivized economy. Following the example of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the lessons of the 1917 October Revolution, the International Communist League fights to build national sections of a reforged Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution, which will organize and educate the working class in the spirit of uncompromising hostility to the depredations of imperialism and opposition to all forms of bourgeois populism.