Supporting the “lesser evil” in Venezuela?

August 15, 2017

With Donald Trump threatening military action against Venezuela, the left's ongoing debate about the way forward is all the more acute. Tom Lewis, co-author with Oscar Olivera of ¡Cochabamba! Water War in Bolivia and contributor to the International Socialist Review, puts forward an independent socialist view on the debate.

IN VENEZUELA today, a neoliberal right aims to kill off the Bolivarian process, using violence and economic sabotage, with the full backing of U.S. imperialism. At the same time, a venal "Chavista" government, led by President Nicolás Maduro, reigns over scarcity, represses dissent, rigs elections and fills private bank accounts with profits pilfered from an extractivist economy and military drug trafficking.

The question "which way out?" or "what way forward?" for Venezuela is routinely posed as a binary choice. Should we support Maduro's government or align with the opposition?

If you choose the first option, you side with a government that has betrayed the Bolivarian process. And if you choose the second option, you side with an opposition dominated by fascists and neoliberals.

At least on the English-speaking left, the debate over Venezuela has predictably been plotted as yet another episode in the tired old melodrama of "lesser evilism." One of the legacies of Stalinism is that the ugly politics of lesser evilism raises its twin horns everywhere and in every way: Trump or Clinton? Washington or Moscow? Stalin or Mao? Maduro or MUD (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, Democratic Unity Roundtable)?

Lines outside supermarkets in Venezuela form early in the morning
Lines outside supermarkets in Venezuela form early in the morning

Too often, we do not dare to answer: Neither of the above. But "neither of the above" is precisely the response demanded by the current situation in Venezuela.

Venezuelan revolutionaries--as well as the many foreign sisters and brothers who offer international solidarity to the Bolivarian process--find ourselves pressured to choose between a lesser evil (Maduro and the state bureaucracy dominated by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela [PSUV]) and a greater evil (the right-wing opposition and U.S. imperialism).

This is a sclerotic and ultimately self-destructive choice--one that guarantees, no matter which side wins, the suffocation of the revolutionary energies and ideals that led millions to support Chavismo in the early years.

Fortunately, there exist some political groups, some rank-and-file unionists, some urban colectivos and perhaps some rank-and-file sectors of the armed forces who consider themselves to be authentic Chavistas and who are prepared to organize for another way.

Donald Trump's threats to start more wars, including against Venezuela, represent a heightening of the U.S. government's long-standing hostility toward the governments of Chávez and Maduro. Socialists unconditionally oppose U.S. imperialist threats and intervention, military or otherwise. But this can't serve as an excuse to fall in behind the "lesser evil" logic of defending a Venezuelan government that has betrayed the people.

A Self-Defeating Illusion

In an article published July 29 at Jacobin ("Which way out of the Venezuelan crisis?") George Ciccariello-Maher offers the following rebuttal to Mike González's Jacobin article of July 8 ("Being honest about Venezuela"):

Ultimately, for González, Chavista elites and the bourgeoisie who have "happily colluded" with them are one and the same. But this leaves him unable to answer the most basic question of all: if they are the same, then why are they fighting a bloody battle in the streets? The answer is that, however imperfectly, the Maduro government still stands for the possibility of something radically different, as the many grassroots revolutionaries that continue to support the process can attest.

Ciccariello-Maher is an insightful scholar and analyst of the Venezuelan experience; his views deserve respect. Yet a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bolivarian process surfaces in this passage. This misunderstanding derives from a widely shared but nonetheless mistaken idea of Venezuelan political economy--in particular, class processes and class struggle today--as well as of the class character of the "Bolivarian" state that has been erected to reproduce Venezuela's current regime of capital accumulation.

Ciccariello-Maher rightly observes that the "Chavista elites" and "the bourgeoisie" are squared off against each other today, but he errs when he attempts to assess the significance of this fact. Indeed, Ciccariello-Maher strongly implies that since they are engaged in "bloody" conflict with "the bourgeoisie," the "Chavista elites" cannot and do not constitute a "bourgeoisie" in their own right.

Although he acknowledges it elsewhere in his writings, in this key passage from Jacobin Ciccariello-Maher conceptually ignores the reality, power, and influence of the boliburguesía--that is, the public officials and associated regime capitalists who have become rich off successive Chavista administrations.

The boliburguesía--its existence and its social agency--completely disappears from Ciccariello-Maher's scenario of lesser evilism ("Chavista elites" vs. "bourgeoisie"). For him, therefore, the Maduro government still represents an anti-capitalist institution and social force ("the possibility of something radically different").

On this logic, one might well argue--in denial of large chunks of historical experience--that sections of the ruling class never face off violently against one another. Yet violent confrontations can and often do characterize contexts in which a rising section challenges the power and privilege of an already established section of the ruling class. Capitalists regularly behave as a "band of warring brothers" when it comes to who gets to control the spoils of exploitation.

Many analysts refer to Venezuela as a "petro-state" or "rentier state," meaning that the economy revolves around oil and mineral extraction and exports. Moreover, it is widely acknowledged that Chávez's dream of "endogenous" development dissolved with falling oil prices. As a result, even after the advent of Chavismo, the national economy occupied the same position in the world economy as it did before Chávez: Namely, Venezuela remains imprisoned in the imperialist dungeon of extractivism.

The Policies and Practices of Extractivism

Extractivism is the main regime of capital accumulation in Venezuela. This process is not administered by the direct producers (oil workers), nor is it superintended by the informal sector of related service workers.

Those whose labor is exploited in and through this regime of accumulation aren't allowed to have a deciding voice in the overall policies and practices of extractivism. Instead, capital accumulation in Venezuela is controlled by the state and the PSUV party bureaucracy. These entities run Venezuela very much as if it were a private enterprise--Venezuela, Inc.

The list of consequences goes on and on: state-led development from above; personally lucrative deals with imperialists; sweetheart deals with sectors of national capital and business union bureaucrats; disregard of environmental impacts; violations of Indigenous rights; the siphoning off into private pockets of foreign capital and international aid; strangling the flow of financing to social programs whenever faced with the "need" to impose austerity and administer shortages; subversion of local autonomies by forcing barrios, misiones and colectivos to compete for scarce resources, thereby creating local PSUV apparatchiks who must curry favor and identify with the ruling party and its state.

What I have just sketched is known as the system of bureaucratic state capitalism. It is an understanding of contemporary Venezuela as this kind of system that Ciccariello-Maher misses. This conceptual failure causes him to misinterpret the significance of the "bloody battle" between an old ruling class that longs to return to naked neoliberalism and a new ruling class that veils state capitalism behind the shroud of socialist rhetoric.

Bureaucratic state capitalism is, however, precisely the perspective that González brings to bear on the nature of the current crisis in Venezuela. Whereas Ciccariello-Maher naively sees Maduro as the last bastion of Chavista hope, González correctly sees Maduro as the undertaker of the Bolivarian revolution.

During a Facebook discussion of Venezuela, Sam Farber circulated a link to the debate held in 1950 between Max Shachtman and Earl Browder concerning the nature of the Stalinist Soviet Union ("Is Russia a socialist community?"). Anyone who wishes further explanation of why González views Venezuela as a non-socialist social formation will find this exchange to be enlightening.

A Revolutionary United Front

Another significant voice propagating major illusions about what Maduro and the PSUV represent for socialism and revolutionary hope is Stalin Pérez Borges, a long-standing union leader, current figure of the United Chavista Socialist League and member of the Advisory Committee of the Bolivarian Socialist Workers Central Union (CBST).

Other critics will dissect details of his arguments in depth. What I wish to highlight here is the overall contradiction at the heart of Pérez Borges's prognosis for revolutionary developments emerging from the recently empowered National Constituent Assembly (ANC).

The list of revolutionary reforms that Pérez Borges expects is truly astonishing. He believes that the ANC will find a way to defuse the present situation of violent confrontations; arrange a negotiated social peace; devise a system of price controls and insure an equitable distribution of consumer goods; improve the constitutional status and state funding of the misiones and other social programs; eradicate corruption and impunity within the government; productively address problems of national and cultural identity; protect Indigenous rights; empower the youth; and defend the environment.

All of that is at best wishful thinking. At worst, it is grotesque propaganda for the regime of bureaucratic state capitalism.

Pérez Borges himself admits that the selection process for ANC delegates was thoroughly undemocratic and controlled by the PSUV cúpula. Moreover, the ANC has opened with intensified repression, not only against the right, but also against the center and the left. And no matter what insincere "paper reforms" eventually make their way out of the ANC, they will be thwarted and crushed whenever the government deems it "necessary" to do so.

Reforms are by no means guaranteed, nor will they endure in a social conjuncture shaped by state capitalism, warring factions of the ruling class and the subordination of progressive grassroots organizations to the state apparatus of PSUV committeemen and committeewomen.

Only a fully-fledged socialist revolution--one that abolishes state capitalism, thereby loosening the hold of imperialism and dissolving a racketeering state--can enact true and lasting reforms.

So what is to be done? The path lies in the direction of building a revolutionary united front committed to fighting the right, re-establishing the constitution of 1999, and recovering the economic and social gains of the early years of the Bolivarian process. The starting point would be to pursue a united front among a variety of groups and individuals.

This united front would not include the Opposition, the boliburguesía or hard-line, rigidly centralized and authoritarian sectors of the PSUV. It should, however, seek to win over some of the trade unions, colectivos and student groups that at present remain formally within the PSUV. Their support for Maduro, especially among the rank and file, may weaken as the crisis deepens.

A revolutionary united front might also include pockets of rank-and-file military resistance to Maduro--depending on whether the military rebels have declared for MUD or for the Constitution of 1999.

A revolutionary united front strategy should not, however, rely fundamentally on the military. The old Bolivarian strategy of "civic-military" alliances revealed its bankruptcy starting in 2006, if not before. Nevertheless, if sectors of the military declare for the Constitution of 1999, and if they agree to fight under revolutionary civilian leadership, then their participation could be welcomed.

The only strategy with any promise of success in breaking the chains forged by imperialism and state capitalism in Venezuela is that of the patient building up of revolutionary socialist forces outside of both the Maduro government and the opposition.

No one should entertain any illusions that such a strategy can provide a short-cut or quick fix. There is nothing automatic about it, and eventual success will require a commitment to longer-term struggle.

It is not, of course, the place of North American socialists to choose the way forward for Venezuelan socialists. But in fact, a strategy similar to the one outlined in this article has already been proposed by the comrades of Venezuela's Marea Socialista (MS).

At this juncture, one cannot claim that MS and its allies can field anything like the social forces necessary to defeat the opposition, nor to simultaneously transform Venezuela's regime of state capitalist accumulation. In a way that other significant political formations in Venezuela do not, however, MS carries the flame of authentic Chavista hope and expresses it with the resolute clarity of revolutionary socialism.

For MS's perspective and its rich analysis of contemporary Venezuelan society and politics, see the interview with MS member Carlos Carcione published at

Meanwhile, back in the belly of the beast: If the bellicose thug known as Donald J. Trump does anything further to interfere with the process of Venezuelan self-determination, he and those who support him in Congress, the State Department and the U.S. military should be challenged mightily in American streets by our own homegrown united front.

Hands off Venezuela! U.S. Out of Latin America!!

Thanks to Todd Chretien and Eva María for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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