Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How socialist is Venezuela? What is socialism?

Another contribution to this discussion at the website of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty...

The AWL says 'Venezuelan workers should fight for socialism'

Of course, this sort of discussion raises the question: what is socialism? I think we can make a rough analytic distinction between political and economic aspects of socialism. Politically, socialism means the rule of the working class, exercised through mechanisms of direct democracy like soviets; economically, it means a planned economy where use value replaces exchange value (obviously that's a pretty sketchy summary, but you get the idea).

I think there is a danger, though, of setting up a very pure model of socialism, based on a perhaps romanticised view of the Russian revolution, and then using this model to take a too-pessimistic view of real-life revolutions with socialist potential or even some socialist characteristics. There is an almost Popperian mode of thought which can creep in - one composes a list of the key characteristics of socialism, and then looks at a real-life revolution and, as soon as a characteristic is found to be missing, 'falsifies' said revolution.

By the early 20s virtually none of the mechanisms of direct democracy described in 'State and Revolution' were functioning properly in the Soviet Union; Lenin and Trotsky themselves admitted that the Bolshevik Party was using terror to run a dictatorship. Lenin also insisted, over and over again, that the Soviet Union was in economic terms a state capitalist society, not a socialist society. Yet Lenin also insisted, sometimes in the next paragraph, that the Soviet Union was a socialist society. For him, the democratic and economic deficits had to be balanced against the fact that the Bolshevik Party was in power, and counter-revolution had so far been held at bay. I think we need this sort of careful calculation, which takes in all the contradictions of a revolutionary situation, when we weigh up revolutions like the one in Venezuela, or for that matter the one in Cuba. I don't think there is any simple checklist of characteristics that we can run through to decide whether to call Venezuela socialist - it's a matter of weighing and balancing.

The Venezuelan government has taken control over the commanding heights of the economy, by destroying the autonomy of the state oil company, which also functions as a de facto part of the finance sector. The Endogenous Development Strategy has some of the features of an economic plan, and in many contexts - for instance, in the context of its provisions for the Venepal factory - is undermining the market. On the political side of things, the Misiones arguably represent a break with the old state, and a step towards the creation of a new, revolutionary state.

The committees running a handful of the nationalised factories, the autonomous collective farms like Berbere, the Land Committees, the Boliviarian Circles, and the (now apparently defunct) Units of Economic/Endogenous Struggle have all had some soviet-like features. The new Communal Councils being piloted at the moment may be able to give the BCs, UBEs, and Land Committees a new form, and real power, and create a building block for the revolutionary state of the sort that Lenin abstracted in pure form in State and Revolution.

I don't think that it is a foregone conclusion that the EDS will become a workers' and peasants' five year plan, or that the Communal Councils will become organs of workers' power for the barrios. These institutions could as easily be used to hold back the Bolivarian revolution. The way they are used depends on the balance of power between the contending classes and factions in Venezuela. I am convinced, though, that it would be fruitless to condemn these institutions at this stage because of their admitted imperfections, and to counterpose to them some abstract model of socialism which has had no historical expression.


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