Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The Philosopher and the President

Posted by Scott

I've linked to it already, but I can't resist quoting from Alan Woods' account of his meeting with Hugo Chavez. I had a brief e mail conversation with Woods a while back after reading some of Reason in Revolt, his study of modern philosophy. I'd complained that he was a bit rough on Wittgenstein. Woods seemed a nice enough bloke, but I guess my opinion on his book doesn't count for much besides Hugo's!

"Immediately after the mass rally, the international delegates were invited to a reception inside the palace of Miraflores...Chavez again addressed the meeting, and one wonders where he gets his energy from...

Afterwards, he was surrounded by a lot of people wanting to shake his hand and exchange a few words. It was a bit like a rugby match, but eventually I managed to get close enough to introduce myself: "I am Alan Woods from London, the author of Reason in Revolt."

Grasping my outstretched hand firmly, he looked at me with curiosity: "What book did you say?"

"Reason in Revolt".

A broad smile lit up his face. "That is a fantastic book! I congratulate you."
Then looking around him he announced: "You must all read this book!"


Not wishing to take up any more of his time at the expense of other people who were waiting, I asked if we could meet.

"Of course we must meet. See my secretary." He pointed to a young man at his side, who promptly informed me that he "would be in touch".

I was going to leave, to allow others to meet the President, when he stopped me. He now seemed to be oblivious of all around him and spoke with obvious enthusiasm: "You know, I have got that book at my bedside and I am reading it every night. I have got as far as the chapter on ‘The molecular process of revolution'. You know, where you write about Gibbs' energy." It appears that this section has made a considerable impact on him, because he quotes it continually in his speeches. Mr. Gibbs has probably never been so famous before!

This is no accident. The Venezuelan revolution has now reached a critical point where the outcome must be determined in one sense or another. The chapter he referred to deals with just such a critical point in chemistry, where a certain amount of energy, known as Gibbs' energy, is needed to bring about a qualitative transformation. Chavez has grasped the fact that the revolution needs to make this qualitative leap, and this is why that passage in the book attracted his attention.

The following day I was completely occupied. I spoke at a meeting of a hundred people in a debate about the fundamental problems of the Revolution, in which I advocated the expropriation of the property of the oligarchy, the arming of the people and workers' control and management. I quoted Lenin's famous four conditions for workers' power, and the bit about the limitation on the salaries of officials proved particularly popular...

The next day I phoned Chavez's secretary to ask about the appointment. The reply was not encouraging: "The President is very busy. A lot of people want to see him."
"Well, let's get this straight: is the meeting going to take place – yes or no?"
"I think it will be impossible."

I drew the obvious conclusion and went to discuss with two oil workers leaders from Puerto la Cruz over lunch.

In the middle of lunch, I was surprised when Fernando Bossi entered the restaurant and came up to our table. He is an Argentinean and the head of the Bolivarian Peoples' Congress, spreading all over Latin America.

"Alan, be ready by half past five. The President will see you at half past six."


The palace of Miraflores is an elegant neo classical building probably built in the 19th century and with an air reminiscent of the Spanish colonial era. In the centre there is a large patio surrounded by columns. Although the meeting was initially scheduled for half past six, it was past ten o'clock by the time I was called. As I stood waiting I was struck by the sound of the local crickets, so much louder and more strident than the ones I am used to in Spain.

I was told to expect an interview of between twenty and thirty minutes, which seemed perfectly adequate to me. The person before me was Heinz Dieterich, a German now living in Mexico, and an old friend of Chavez. He was with the President for 40 minutes, and profusely apologised for keeping me waiting. I told him I did not mind. However, there was a long gap before I was finally called. I supposed that Chavez was tired after a long day and wanted a rest, or maybe he was having something to eat.

These speculations were incorrect. I later discovered that Hugo Chavez is not a man who tires easily. He starts work every day before 8 o'clock and works until about three in the morning. Then he reads (he is a voracious reader). I don't know when he sleeps, yet he always seems to be bubbling with energy and talking endlessly about all sorts of things. This does not make him an easy man to work with, as his personal secretary told me: "I would do anything for him, but there is never a moment's peace. Sometimes I can't even go to the toilet. I start to walk in that direction and somebody shouts: ‘the President wants you!'"

The reason I was kept waiting is that the President wanted to read all the material of the
Hands off Venezuela campaign. As I walked into his office, he was sitting at his desk, with a huge portrait of Simon Bolivar behind him. On the desk I noticed a copy of Reason in Revolt and a letter I had sent him. The letter had been heavily underlined in blue.

Chavez greeted me very warmly. Here was no "protocol" but only openness and frankness. He began by asking me about Wales and my family background. I explained that I was from a working class family, and he replied that he was from a family of peasants. "Well, Alan, what have you got to say?" he asked. Actually, I was more interested in what he had to say – which was very interesting.

First I presented him with two books: my history of the Bolshevik Party (Bolshevism, the Road to Revolution) and Ted Grant's Russia – from Revolution to Counterrevolution. He looked extremely pleased. "I love books," he told me. "If they are good books, I love them even more. But even if they are bad books, I still love them."

Opening the Bolshevism book he read the dedication I had written, which reads: "To President Hugo Chavez with my best wishes. The Road to Revolution passes through the ideas, programme and traditions of Marxism. Forward to Victory!" He said "That is a wonderful dedication. Thank you, Alan." He began to turn the pages and stopped.
"I see you write about Plekhanov."
"That's right."

I read a book by Plekhanov a long time ago, and it made a big impression on me. It was called The Role of the Individual in History. Do you know it?"
"Of course."
"The role of the individual in history", he mused. "Well, I know none of us is really indispensable," he said.
"That is not quite correct," I replied. "There are times in history when an individual can make a fundamental difference."
"Yes, I was pleased to see that in Reason in Revolt you say that Marxism cannot be reduced to economic factors."
"That is right. That is a vulgar caricature of Marxism."
"Do you know when I read Plekhanov's book The Role of the Individual in History?" he asked.
"I have no idea."
"I read it when I was a serving officer in an anti-guerrilla unit in the mountains. You know they gave us material to read so that we could understand subversion. I read that the subversives work among the people, defend their interests and win their hearts and minds. That seemed quite a good idea!”

"Then I began to read Plekhanov's book and it made a deep impression on me. I remember it was a beautiful starlit night in the mountains and I was in my tent reading with the light of a torch. The things I read made me think and I began to question what I was doing in the army. I became very unhappy.

"You know for us it was no problem. Moving about in the mountains with rifles in our hands. Also the guerrillas had no problems – they were doing the same as us. But the people who suffered were the ordinary peasants. They were helpless and they had a rough time. I remember one day we went into a village and I saw some soldiers torturing two peasants. I told them to stop that immediately, that there would be none of that as long as I was in command.

"Well, that really got me into trouble. They even wanted to put me on trial for military insubordination. [He put special emphasis on the last two words]. After that I decided that the army was no place for me. I wanted to quit, but I was stopped by an old Communist who said to me: ‘You are more useful to the Revolution in the army than ten trade unionists.' So I stayed. I now think that was the right thing to do.
"Do you know that I set up an army in those mountains? It was an army of five men. But we had a very long name. We called ourselves the Simon Bolivar people's national liberation army." He laughed heartily.
"When was that?" I asked.

"In 1974. You see, I thought to myself: this is the land of Simon Bolivar. There must be something of his spirit still alive – something in our genes, I suppose. So we set about trying to revive it"...

I was able to form an impression about Chavez the man. The first thing that strikes one is that he is transparently honest. His sincerity is absolutely clear, as is his dedication to the cause of the Revolution and his hatred of injustice and oppression. Of course, these qualities in and of themselves are not sufficient to guarantee the victory of the revolution, but they certainly explain his tremendous popularity with the masses.

He asked me what I thought of the movement in Venezuela. I replied that it was very impressive, that the masses were clearly the main motive force and that all the ingredients were present to carry the revolution through to the end, but that there was something missing. He asked what that was. I replied that the weakness of the movement was the absence of a clearly defined ideology and cadres. He agreed.

"You know, I don't consider myself a Marxist because I have not read enough Marxist books," he said.
From this conversation I had the distinct impression that Hugo Chavez was looking for ideas, and that he was genuinely interested in the ideas of Marxism and anxious to learn. This is related to the stage that the Venezuelan Revolution has reached. Sooner than many people expect, it will be faced with a stark choice: either liquidate the economic power of the oligarchy or else go soon to defeat...

The President glanced at his watch. It was eleven o’clock.
"Do you mind if I put the television on for just a moment? We are starting a new news programme and I would like to see what they've done."
We watched the news for about five minutes. It was a programme about Iraq.
"Well, Alan, what did you think of it?"
"Not bad at all."
"We're planning to launch a television service that will be broadcast all over Latin America."

No wonder the US imperialists are having sleepless nights about Hugo Chavez.
About George W. Bush, Chavez expresses himself in terms of the deepest contempt. "Personally, he is a coward. He attacked Fidel Castro at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) when Fidel was not present. If he had been there he would not have dared to do it. They say he is frightened to meet me and I believe it. He tries to avoid me. But one time we were together at an OAS summit and he was sitting quite near to me." Chavez chuckled to himself.

"I had one of those swivel chairs and I was sitting with my back to him. Then, after a while, I spun the chair round so I was facing him. "Hello, Mr. President!" I said. His face turned colour – from red to purple to blue. You can tell the man is just a bundle of complexes. That makes him dangerous – because of the power he has in his hands."

At the end of our meeting, Hugo Chavez expressed his firm support for the Hands off Venezuela campaign. He also gave his personal backing to the publication of a Venezuelan edition of Reason in Revolt, with the possibility of other books in the future. We parted company on the best of terms...

The following evening the foreign delegates were once again assembled in a hall inside the President's palace. Again there must have been about 200 people present, together with television cameras. I had arrived a little late and sat at the back of the crowded hall. After some minutes a man from the President's office came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder: "Mr. Woods, be ready to speak in five minutes."

I was not at all prepared for this, but I walked up to the microphone in front of the television cameras, next to the table where President was sitting. I spoke about the world crisis of capitalism and explained that all the wars, economic crises, terrorism etc. were only individual manifestations of this organic crisis of capitalism. I pointed out that the only way to solve the problems of humanity was through the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of world socialism. I explained that in the 200 years since the death of Bolivar, the bourgeoisie of Latin America had turned what ought to be an earthly paradise into a living hell for millions of people.

In conclusion I pointed to the colossal potential of the productive forces that was being wasted because of the two major barriers to human progress – private ownership of the means of production and "that relic of barbarism the nation state". I pointed to the enormous achievements of science and technology that were sufficient in themselves to transform the lives of the majority of the planet.

At this point I said: "It seems the Americans are now preparing to send a man to Mars. I believe we should support this proposal on one condition – that the man in question is George W. Bush and that he is on a one-way ticket."
At this the hall erupted into laughter, and Chavez shouted above the din: "And Aznar – don't forget Aznar."
To which I replied: "Mr. President, let us not speak ill of the dead!"...

As usual, Chavez spoke last and he spoke for a long time, during which he mentioned my speech on several occasions. At regular intervals someone would come in with a despairing note from the caterers whose food was being ruined by the delay. But Chavez was in full flight and nobody could stop him. He would glance at the unfortunate messenger and say: "What! You again!" And then continue as if nothing had happened.

Like all Venezuelans he has a huge sense of humour. At one point, after he had been speaking for quite some time, he called out:
"Are you still there, Alan?"
"Yes, I am still here."
"Are you asleep?"
"No, I am wide awake."
[Pause] "Who is this Gibbs?"
"A scientist".
"Oh, a scientist." And then he continued as before.

The reference to Gibbs (or Hibbs as he pronounces it) had most of the audience mystified and I had to spend a little time telling people how it was spelt. It was nearly midnight when we finally sat down for dinner... We were entertained by a group of musicians playing Venezuelan music with guitars and harps and other traditional instruments, which Chavez pointed out to me, obviously enjoying himself tremendously.

What more can I say? I do not usually write in such detail about individuals, and I am conscious of the fact that some people consider such things to be out of place in Marxist literature. But I think they are mistaken, or at least a bit one-sided. Marx explains that men and women make history and the study of those individuals who play a role in making history is a valid part of literature – including Marxist literature.


Personally, I have never been very interested in psychology, except in the very broadest sense of the word. All too often, second rate writers try to cover up their lack of real understanding of history by claiming to delve into the deepest recesses of the mind of certain individuals to discover, for example, that Stalin and Hitler had an unhappy childhood. This is then supposed to explain why they later became ruthless dictators who tyrannised over millions. But in reality such explanations explain nothing. There are many people who have unhappy childhoods but not many who become Hitlers or Stalins. To explain such phenomena one must understand the relations between classes and the objective socio-economic processes that shape them.

Nevertheless, up to a certain point, an individual's personality has an effect on the processes of history. For me, what is interesting is the dialectical relationship between subject and object, or, as Hegel would have expressed it, between the Particular and the Universal. It would be very instructive to write a book on the exact relationship between Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution. That such a relation exists is not open to doubt. Whether it is positive or negative will depend on what class standpoint one defends."




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