Did socialism fail in Venezuela?

June 7, 2017

Eva María explains why the answer depends on our understanding of socialism.

AS A Spanish teacher at a university in Portland, Oregon, I've had three students who randomly comment on the tragedy of socialism in Venezuela in the course of the last month:

"Aren't you from Venezuela?" one asked me.
"Yes, I am."
"Is your family okay? I've been hearing a lot about people being killed by the socialist dictator."

Similarly, at a public meeting of the ISO titled "The Case for Socialism," a member of the audience commented: "I really want to agree with all of this. But how can we have socialism and avoid what is happening in Venezuela?"

This uptick in interest and concern about Venezuela should come as no surprise since the ever-deepening crisis and the latest wave of anti-government protests have featured prominently in the mainstream media.

Since the election of the late President Hugo Chávez in 1998, it seemed like the Western media focused every few months on scenes of protest and chaos, involving crowds of young, college-educated Venezuelans who saw middle-class living standards threatened by Chávez's left-wing political and economic agenda.

The mainstream media almost never represented the poor majority of Venezuelans and the struggles they faced--either during Chávez's reign when their conditions improved and they took action in support of the government, or now when they bear the brunt of the economic and social crisis.

Now, that crisis has been reaching new heights as rising inflation makes minimal wage increases irrelevant, food and medicine shortages threaten people's survival and well-being, and intensifying street violence and clashes between police and armed opposition groups contribute to a mood of fear and confusion.

ALL THIS is being associated in people's minds with socialism since Chavez and Venezuela's current President Nicolás Maduro both embraced the project of building "socialism of the 21st century" in Venezuela, with the hopes of extending it regionally.

In theory, this new version of socialism wouldn't follow the Russian or Cuban models from the 20th century, but would constitute a new project, based on the cooperation of the state, led by Chávez, and the people to build a mass democratic and egalitarian system.

Hugo Chávez (in blue and white) joins in a mass rally in Caracas
Hugo Chávez (in blue and white) joins in a mass rally in Caracas

Eventually, an expansive network of local communes would gain representation in the state until the state itself became "a confederation of communal councils," as Chávez described it in the 2005 World Social Forum speech where he introduced his vision of "socialism of the 21st century."

This implementation of popular democracy was to be the essence of the Bolivarian revolution, or at least one of its most important aspects. Many socialists in Venezuela and across the world went along with this new vision of socialism and theorized what it could mean for the future of socialism as a worldwide goal.

But looking back more than a decade later, it's obvious that the spread and empowerment of communal councils fell far short of a national confederation--while the other "motors" of "socialism" that Chávez described, including laws enabling him to govern by decree in order to establish the conditions of popular participation, have become all the more dominant in the Maduro era.

The U.S. media portray Venezuela as an oil-rich country that fell into the hands of a communist-style dictatorship allied with the Castro regime in Cuba. They link the horrible and indefensible conditions that Venezuelans are enduring today with the imposition of a socialist system by a dictatorship.

By contrast, revolutionary socialists view what's happening in Venezuela not as a result of socialism failing, but as a consequence of the fact that it was never implemented. What we see in Venezuela is not the crisis of a socialist society, but rather an acute crisis of capitalism that is crystallizing across the region, whether in countries with a more free market-oriented system, or those like Venezuela with a more state-directed economy.

Thus, the answer to the question "Did socialism fail in Venezuela?" depends on what we mean by socialism and how we see it being achieved.

IN THE 1960s, the American socialist Hal Draper summarized the differences in how socialism is defined by contrasting two traditions: "socialism from below" versus "socialism from above."

For Draper, "socialism from below" is the socialism of Karl Marx. Marx and Frederick Engels believed that the rise of capitalism made it possible for the first time in history to achieve a world free from scarcity and inequality, but only if the capitalist system--which puts profits ahead of people's needs, producing poverty, hunger and environmental catastrophe--is swept away and a new society, based on the collective power of workers, is built.

Marx and Engels summed up this idea with the famous phrase: "[T]he emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."

The vision of socialism from below draws on the experiences of mass workers' struggles and revolutions, like the Russian Revolution of 1917, where a system of genuinely mass democracy was established through the system of workers' councils, representing working people at the grassroots of society.

In his book Ten Days that Shook the World, John Reed the spirit of the workers councils, or "soviets":

As all real socialists know, and as we who have seen the Russian Revolution can testify, there is today in Moscow and throughout all the cities and towns of the Russian land a highly complex political structure, which is upheld by the vast majority of the people and which is functioning as well as any newborn popular government ever functioned...No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will changes with great rapidity."

The contrast of this system with what Draper called "socialism from above" couldn't be clearer. At the time he was writing, his main argument was directed at the two most prominent forms of "socialism from above": social democracy, mostly dominant in Western Europe, and the so-called communist states of Russia, China and the Eastern bloc. As Draper wrote:

These two self-styled socialisms are very different, but they have more in common than they think. The social democracy has typically dreamed of "socializing" capitalism from above. Its principle has always been that increased state intervention in society and economy is per se socialistic. It bears a fatal family resemblance to the Stalinist conception of imposing something called socialism from the top down, and of equating statification with socialism.

Draper illustrated the difference between these different "souls" of socialism based on the question of who acts--a small minority or the vast majority in society:

What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized "from below" in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history.

BASED ON this understanding of socialism, it is impossible to identify Venezuela under Chávez as anything but a version of socialism from above. The origin of "socialism of the 21st century" in a speech by the president, with its first concrete steps handing more power to that president, is the very definition of "from above."

Defenders of the Bolivarian revolution acknowledge, of course, the reality that the first steps have been taken by friendly managers of the state--but they go on to insist that these steps have been crucial to the development of grassroots projects from below advancing the level of democratic engagement. In a recent interview for the print edition of Jacobin magazine, Gregory Wilpert states:

The fact is, historically, the government is oftentimes the main obstacle to revolution, right? But in Venezuela, suddenly you had a different kind of government, one that said: "Hey, you can create these communes, you can organize yourselves, and so on." Isn't that the government giving the tools to the people to participate in that revolution? To make their own revolution, in fact?

Under this conception, Venezuela's network of communal councils should develop under the sponsorship of the state, but also in opposition to it, as a revolutionary movement from below--one that would need to challenge the state at any point that it becomes an obstacle to the development of communal power.

This is a contradiction, to say the least, which can be seen in the very clear limitations on popular power in Venezula--especially when it comes to workers' power over their workplaces.

The actual experience of the relationship between the government and working-class organization has been mixed, with the state picking and choosing which initiatives for workers' control it supported and which it didn't.

For example, even at the high point of Chavismo a decade ago, the government rejected nationalization as an option for Sanitarios Maracay, a bathroom fixture manufacturer run under workers' control after the employer abandoned negotiations. When the employer succeeded in ousting the workers' occupation, the government refused to intervene--because the factory wasn't "strategic."

And it must be remembered that even state-run enterprises, much less those under some real form of workers' control, have always been a minority in the Venezuelan economy. As Anderson Bean wrote in a recent SocialistWorker.org article:

Despite its progressive language on participatory democracy and human rights, the 1999 Chavista constitution gives significant protection to private property in Article 15.

In fact, between 1999 and 2011, the private sector's share of economic activity actually increased from 65 to 71 percent. The critical oil sector is dominated by a state-owned company, but other important industries, like food imports and processing operations, pharmaceuticals and auto parts, are still controlled by the private sector.

The limitations on anything that could be called "popular power" are even more obvious today with the increasing authoritarianism of the Maduro government.

But even under Chávez, economic and political power in Venezuela remained overwhelmingly in the hands of a corrupt capitalist elite and an increasingly bureaucratized state that was in a position to control the amount of popular power it was supposedly encouraging.

Attempts at grassroots organizing through the communal network, though often very inspiring, remained subordinated to the bureaucracy. And meanwhile, the government, by simultaneously upholding and protecting privately owned industry, weakened its own position in conflicts with Venezuela's capitalists, particularly as the drop in oil prices hit Venezuela's oil export-based economy.

THE CHÁVEZ government managed to do what no other leader of Venezuela has done. Using the oil revenues that swelled during the early years of the 2000s, it expanded social programs to provide health care for millions of poor Venezuelans, dramatically increased access to education and attempted to include historically marginalized sectors into the national political process.

Additionally, Chávez's opposition to the U.S. and its neoliberal economic doctrines--openly expressed as opposition to capitalism--rightfully inspired millions of people around the world to reconsider socialism as a worthwhile project.

These are achievements worth celebrating. But they don't add up to socialism because Chávez never let real power spread to the grassroots of society. Indeed, any initiatives for popular power depended, to receive any funding or support, on loyalty to the government. This kind of clientelist relationship with grassroots campaigns has nothing to do with genuine socialism.

Once the boom in basic commodities ended, world oil prices plummeted, and the revenues used to expand social programs dried up, along with any leverage that the state had to hold Venezuela's private capitalists in check.

The response of the Maduro administration has been to crack down on opposition, both from the right wing that has always opposed the government, but also supporters of Chavismo that dissent from Maduro's direction for society.

This, too, must be completely rejected by revolutionaries. The fight for socialism should always stand for the expansion of democracy, not restrictions on it.

With Maduro, the bureaucratic layer that had already emerged under Chávez seems to have consolidated and strengthened its hold over state resources. Not only is it clear that there is massive corruption among "Bolivarian bureaucrats," but this layer has failed to challenge the Venezuelan capitalist class--something that Maduro has shown with his continual overtures and concessions to private capitalists, even as he cracks down on democracy.

Venezuela has remained a capitalist country, through and through, despite the social achievements of the last 18 years. What has failed is not socialism, but a system that has been capitalist in its economic and political domination by a minority over the majority.

To the extent that Chávez proposed a strategy for achieving socialism in the future by accepting compromises with private capitalist control and the political rule of a minority acting on behalf of the masses of people, that, too, has been proven lacking.

Relying on a minority, however well intentioned, to take over a capitalist state and reform the system into socialism has failed before. Socialism from above, in whatever form it takes, is not the successful shortcut we should keep trying.

To inspire a new generation of socialists, we need to be able to explain what happened in Venezuela--and to re-raise the banner of socialism from below. As Draper writes at the close of his The Two Souls of Socialism:

Since the beginning of society, there has been no end of theories "proving" that tyranny is inevitable and that freedom-in-democracy is impossible; there is no more convenient ideology for a ruling class and its intellectual flunkies. These are self-fulfilling predictions, since they remain true only as long as they are taken to be true. In the last analysis, the only way of proving them false is in the struggle itself. That struggle from below has never been stopped by the theories from above, and it has changed the world time and again. To choose any of the forms of Socialism-from-Above is to look back to the old world, to the "old crap." To choose the road of Socialism-from-Below is to affirm the beginning of a new world.

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