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.


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