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.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

'Even in snapshots, he seems like he's moving'

That's why the obituarist at Crooked Timber says about George Best. It's a great line, and this is great photo.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Red and Green #5 out now

See the blurb here. My essay on Britain's pro-war 'left' is part of the package.

Another Kiwi first

First vote for women, first welfare state, and now the first Starbucks strike!

For background on the action, check out this cool site...

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Art galleries as a cure for binge drinking?

Have the people who had this idea ever met any artists?

Monday, November 21, 2005

New (Old) Syd Recording Found!

Got this in the mail today...


An incredibly rare recording of
Syd Barrett, performing live on 27th January, 1972, with the Last-Minute-Put-Together-Boogie-Band, at a show in Cambridge, has recently been unearthed, and plans are underway for a release!

Naturally, this news has spread like wildfire and anticipation is huge amongst the legions of Syd fans. Should the release of this show come to fruition (and the people behind it have outline permissions from allconcerned to go ahead), it will be a fascinating, historical document for Pink Floyd fans.

The sound on the recording (shown to the right) is uneven in parts and will require 'tweaking' in a studio before it will be suitable for release. Any release is therefore some months away.The Last-Minute Put-Together-Boogie-Band's set consists of 5 blues songs before Syd comes on stage for a long jam ("Number Nine") followed by 3 blues songs/improvs ("Gotta Be A Reason", "Let's Roll" and "Sweet Little Angel"). The Hawkwind and Pink Fairies sets on the reel are also reported to be worth hearing.

Syd is on stage for 29 minutes in total - the jam "Number Nine" is around 9 minutes long but segues directly into "Gotta Be A Reason". None of thesongs are Syd's or Pink Floyd's. Alan Barrett (Syd's brother who makesdecisions on Syd's behalf) was pitched the story of the recording and thehopes to release it, and he has contacted PF Music Publishing to give themthe "OK".

The story of this recording is interesting, and can be found by visiting: www.nsblog.co.uk/FraKcman and alsowww.spacewardstudios.ukf.net/stories.htm.

The people behind the release areasking for as many people as possible to email them a one-liner stating 'Isupport this release', sent to:
http://nz.f506.mail.yahoo.com/ym/Compose?To=sydbarrettslostgig@hotmail.co.uk&YY=6163&order=down&sort=date&pos=0 in orderto exert extra leverage on the company that they are hoping will releaseit.

Please note that emails will not be answered, and it's an inbox only facility. This could be a potentially historic release and your voice can help.

Venezuela, the unions, and the state

The Alliance for Workers' Liberty is continuing the debate on Venezuela in the latest issue of its paper. Here's a comment from yours truly:

It is all very well to say that the unions should be independent from the state, but what does this very general statement mean in the specific conditions of Venezuela?

Should socialists oppose the integration of the unions into the state, Peron-style? This is an easy question to answer. Even in a healthy workers' state the independence of the unions should be preserved, as Lenin argued against Trotsky.

But what about more difficult questions, like the question of how unions should relate to the Misiones established by the Aliance for Change government as an alternative to the bureaucratic ministries of the old state? The Misiones appear to be attempts to establish new, more horizontal structures for the delivery of social services, by mobilising the grassroots supports of the revolution to take the place of bureaucrats and oversee the spending of revenue piped from the coffers of the state oil company. I think it would be folly for unions not to engage with the Misiones, which can be considered as the embryo of a new, revolutionary state which may be able to replace the old bourgeois state.

Another question relates to the issue of factories placed under co-management. Should unions represented in factories which have been expropriated and slated for co-management keep their members off the committees formed to implement co-management? In many cases, these committees are comprised of state-appointed managers and workers, in roughly equal proportions.

I think it would be wrong for unions to abstain from these committees, and I think it would be wrong for them to counterpose complete self-management to some form of co-management. Isolated self-managing factories can quickly develop a petty bourgeois mentality, as some of the occupied factories in Argentina have shown. There has to be some way of balancing the interests of the workers with the interests of the wider community and with a broad economic plan, or an alternative to capitalism can never be built.

I think the way that co-management and the endogenous development strategy have been applied to Venepal - balancing the interests of the community and the interests of the workers, and buffeting the factory from market forces by incorporating it into a rough economic plan - look good, at least on paper. Whether they are good in practice depends on the strength of the UNT and other parts of the workers' and peasants' movement, which is battling against the bureaucratisation of the revolution. But I don't see how abstaining from the key theatres of battle would do any good.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Chavez and Bonapartism

The Alliance for Workers Liberty has an article in the latest issue of its paper arguing that Chavez is a Bonapartist. I disagree. Here's my contribution to the discussion the article has generated:

Chavez is not a Bonapartist

It may seem tempting to cast Chavez as a Bonapartist - there is after all the military background, and the history of Bonapartism in South America - but a close examination of the situation in Venezuela reveals the label to be less than useful.

Unlike Cardenas in Mexico, Chavez lacks the backing of an important section of his national bourgeoisie, and control over organised labour.The Bolivarian revolution has been driven from below as well as above, and a dialectical relationship has developed between Chavez and his supporters. When the national bourgeoisie declared war on him as a result of his November 2001 Presidential decrees, which were designed to break through the deadlock in the National Assembly and bring a range of left-wing reforms into the books, Chavez was forced to mobilise his rank and file, and to create organic connections with the working class and peasantry.

Chavez's government today enjoys the political support of organised labour, via the National Organisation of Workers (UNT); the peasantry, via numerous peasant organisations; and the working class communities of the urban barrios, many of whose members are self-employed or casually employed or unemployed, and therefore tend to organise on a community basis, in groups like the Bolivarian Circles and Land Committees.

The point that must be made clear is that the political support of these groups is given freely, and is by no means uncritical (for instance, the UNT attacked Chavez over his recent decision to seel oil to Ecuador, whose refineries had been put out of business by strikes and occupations; and earlier this year 6,000 peasants rallied in Caracas denouncing the government's failure to arm them to fight the thugs hired by the latifundia). There really is no parrallel with the top-down control that the likes of Cardenas and Peron exercised over the labour movement in their countries.

It is also important to understand the nature of the parties that make up the governing Alliance for Change. Aside from Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement, the governing alliance includes two parties, Homeland for All (formerly La Causa R) and the Movement Towards Socialism, which come from splits in the Communist Party in the early 70s and have deep roots in the working class. The Fifth Republic Movement itself has two million members, the overwhelming majority of whom are working class, and a rich internal life which has been reflected in the selection process for candidates for governorships and parliament (the party actually used primaries to select its candidates for last year's state elections). The party is by no means a simple electoral vehicle for Chavez, although arguably it began that way.

What all of these factors add up to is a genuine working class base for Chavez. Whether one wants to call Chavez the leader of a bourgeois workers' party and goverment, as one would call, say, Arbenz or Allende, or the leader of a healthy workers' movement and government, as one would call, say, Lenin in 1918, or something somewhere in between on what is after all a very broad spectrum, really depends on one's analysis of the policies being pursued by the Chavez government - policies like land reform, co-management in industry, the endogenous development strategy, and so on. But it is difficult to analyse these policies properly if you are hindered by a conception of Chavez as a Bonapartist. Trotsky's warning about the dangers of workers' control under Cardenas - a warning which was, let us remember, partly revoked, after Trotsky leanred more about the situation in Mexico - can't be mechanically applied to Venezuela, given the tremendous difference between the situation of the labour movements in the two countries.

Monday, November 14, 2005

A very silly discussion

Sometimes it seems I'll do anything to ignore the call of Phd-writing. I've dipped my oar into this rather silly discussion at spanblather, which was prompted by the appearance on the blogosphere of the curious doctrine of 'dairying agrarian feminism'. If you are truly desperate you may just find the discussion diverting...

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Rod Donald's legacy

It's a year since the sudden death of Rod Donald, and the Green Party is still missing him a lot. Here are some comments which I typed a couple of days after Donald's death, but never got around to tidying up and posting.

It is natural to be shocked and saddened by the sudden death of a very healthy forty-eight year old. I think, though, that the response of the media and politicians of all parties to Donald's demise goes well beyond those sentiments - I'd compare it with the response to David Lange's death earlier this year. And this sort of response is at odds with claims made on sites like indymedia and frogblog that Donald was some sort of thorn in the side of the establishment, an 'outsider' politician untainted by the sort of grubby compromise which is the stock in trade of most MPs. I think the reality is that by the time he had died Donald had become a very valued member of what we can call the political establishment.

He and the Greens had spent much of their time in parliament trying to convince the other parties and the public of their 'respectability' - that is, of their ability to be 'safe pairs of hands' running the state on behalf of New Zealand capitalism. A particularly poignant example of this campaign for respectability came in the aftermath of this year's election, when the Greens held a behind-closed-doors meeting with members of the Business Roundtable, in an effort to convince Roger Kerr and his comrades that they had 'nothing to fear' from a Labour-Green government. For any Green Party member who identifies with left-wing politics, such a meeting must have seemed infinitely more embarrassing than Keith Locke's nearly-nude run through Newmarket.

Rod Donald represented the right wing of the Green Party. Unlike Locke, Sue Bradford and Metiria Turei, who had a background in anti-capitalist politics and the labour movement, Donald traced his political descent back to the sort of petty bourgeois utopianism which found differing expressions in both Social Credit and the early Values Party. Most of his formative political work involved him setting up 'ethical' businesses, and his vision was of a kinder, gentler, greener, Kiwi-owned capitalism. His nationalism made him an opponent of free trade deals, the spy base at Waihopai, and a number of other causes associated with the left, but unlike the soicalist left he never took the working class and the labour movement seriously as possible agents for change.

Of all the Green MPs, Donald was the keenest to abandon shibboleths like opposition to GE field trials and Kiwi troops in Afghanistan in the quest for a place at the Cabinet table. Although he joined the other Green MPs in opposing Labour's decision to join the invasion of Afghanistan, Donald time and time again made himself invaluable to the ruling class of this country and their pals in Canberra and Washington, by giving a 'respectable' 'left' face to reactionary pieces of foreign policy. For example, Donald and his Green comrades beat the drum for last year's Australian-led invasion of the Solomons, which was motivated by a desire to enforce the implementation of a disastrous IMF 'austerity' programme, and by Washington's anxiety about France expansing its influence in Melanesia with an offer of military assistance to the Solomons government.

In 2003 Donald and the rest of the Greens also jumped into bed with the right to pass, under urgency, the so-called 'people smuggling' legislation which would make any 'boat people' fleeing the chaos that IMF policies have created in places like the Solomons liable to 20 years' imprisonment, should they reach New Zealand shores. Had Donald lived, he undoubtedly would have kept shepherding the Greens towards the political centre-right, making more and more compromises in the quest for the illusory power that comes with being a minor partner in a Labour or National government. His death is a tragedy for his family and friends, but it is no loss to the left.

Bush gets a geography lesson

I just read this in a New York Times article about the recent Americas leaders summit Argentina:

"There was a very good personal chemistry," Mr. Amorim said after themeeting at a briefing for reporters. "Both men are pragmatists, focused on results." At one point, Mr. da Silva even exhibited a map of his country, which is larger than the continental United States. "Wow! Brazil is big,"Mr. Amorim quoted the American president as responding.

Now we can guess why Bush invaded Iraq with such a small army. He probably thought the place was about the size of his ranch...

Monday, November 07, 2005

Better late than never?

From some news report lost in cyberspace...

"Better late than never: aged 101, Edward Upward has been awarded the Royal Society of Literature's Benson Medal, in recognition of a lifetime's service to literature. Upward was the inspirational "fourth man" in the group that also boasted Auden, Isherwood and Spender. He was, like them but more durably, radicalised by the 1930s. Together, Upward and Isherwood invented the surreal imaginary world of "Mortmere", as featured in the former's The Railway Accident and the latter's Lions and Shadows. His autobiographical trilogy of novels, The Spiral Ascent, shows why he moved left and stayed there. More recent work, which includes memorable short stories, has been published by Enitharmon Press. Previous recipients of the medal include Tolkien, Burgess and Strachey."

And now he even has his own page at wikipedia!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Comments on China

Michael 'the man' Arnold has some comments on a post I made about China a couple of weeks back:

The 'letter from China' you linked to seems to me to be a fairly accurate summary of what people think here. The exception is the June 1989 movement -people do see it as a protest against authoritarianism in the present government, but it is generally viewed as misguided and misled. It's generally accepted here that the students were spurred into theprotests by factions within the communist party itself trying to take power over the then current leadership, rather than overthrow the entire corrupt party itself as the students themselves demanded. People believe the military were given strict orders to clear the square no matter what the reaction of the crowds, and were instructed to fire their weapons over the students' heads. It's believed the massacre was the result of a tense situation getting out of controland scared, inexperienced soldiers opening fire in frustration. Many people privately doubt this story, but in any case no local Chinese appreciate being drilled on the Western interpreation of events because they've all heard it too many times. Except, of course, those young people who idolise the West and are eager to prove they are in agreement with Western theories.

Meanwhile, the marxist.com website has a new letter from a reader in China, which considers the argument that the country is now well and truly capitalist.

Underground town for sale

Cool, and probably safe to buy now that Bush has scrapped plans for bunker-busting nukes?