Was There a Socialist Revolution in Venezuela? Using Trotsky’s Ideas to Understand Chávez’s Legacy

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20 years after Hugo Chávez won a presidential election under the country’s new constitution, Venezuela lies in ruins. Does this represent the failure of “socialism,” as Trump likes to claim? A Marxist conception developed by Leon Trotsky can help us understand the contradictions of Chavismo.

Twenty years ago, Hugo Chávez won the presidential elections in Venezuela. He had first been elected in 1999, and on July 30, 2000, Chávez won his first term under Venezuela’s new “Bolivarian Constitution.” A right-wing coup attempt in April 2002, followed by a bosses’ lockout at the end of the year, radicalized Chávez’s base. The former military officer began to give fiery speeches against imperialism and capitalism, promising to create a “Socialism of the 21st Century” and even a “Fifth International” to fight for it.

Chávez died in 2013. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, and his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), continue to rule in Venezuela. Yet after 20 years of a “Bolivarian” and “socialist” revolution, Venezuela lies in ruins. Oil production has fallen to levels last seen in 1934. Millions of Venezuelans are in desperate poverty, lacking food, water, and medicine — millions more live as refugees scattered across the Americas.

The blame for this economic devastation lies above all with U.S. imperialism, which has imposed criminal sanctions against the Venezuelan people — even during the pandemic — and has tried to organize a coup.

Yet while denouncing the role of imperialism, socialists need to be critical of both Chávez and Maduro. Their “Boliviarian” governments never pursued an economic policy that could be described as socialist: they never attempted to expropriate the capitalists in Venezuela; they never even stopped paying the foreign debt.

You might also be interested in: No, Venezuela Was Never Socialist

Nonetheless, millions of working-class and poor people — both in Venezuela and around the world — blame the collapse of the Venezuelan economy on “socialism.” This is only worsened by the fact that many tendencies that consider themselves revolutionary Marxists gave political support to Chávez’s project. But that project was never socialist.

This brief article will give an outline of the class forces behind chavismo, applying Marxist categories developed by Leon Trotsky. 

Business Friendly Socialism

It is impossible to understand Hugo Chávez’s program merely by listening to his speeches. An orator of historic ability, Chávez could charm just about any audience, saying wildly contradictory things depending on who was listening. He would rail against the inhumanity of capitalism — and then turn around to reassure capitalists that their property was safe. At the Sixth World Social Forum in 2006, for example, he proclaimed “Socialism or death!”, giving shout-outs to Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Che Guevara. A year later, he reassured international investors: “We have no plan to eliminate the oligarchy, Venezuela’s bourgeoisie. We have demonstrated this sufficiently in over eight years.”

And he had, in fact, demonstrated consistently that he had no intention of getting rid of private property of the means of production. Nonetheless, Chávez claimed about himself: “I am a Trotskyist” and “I follow Trotsky’s line of permanent revolution.” And then this “Trotskyist” welcomed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Caracas, referring to the butcher of Iranian workers as a “leader, brother, comrade.”

What kind of socialism has no plans to eliminate capitalism? In what kind of socialism do government ministers become billionaires? As The New Yorker put it in 2007, “If this is socialism, it’s the most business-friendly socialism ever devised.”

One theoretical model that has been offered by socialist supporters of Chávez goes something like this: Chávez, having assumed office as an honest bourgeois nationalist, radicalized along with his base and began fighting for a socialist policy. Yet his program was sabotaged by the state bureaucracy — the very bureaucracy under his command. So Chávez and his working-class supporters needed to break with this state to carry their “Bolivarian revolution” forward and work toward socialism. In other words, a socialist revolution was blocked halfway. 1

Yet this model is unsatisfactory. 20 years of socialist revolution, even if ultimately unsuccessful, would have battered the bourgeois state. The Venezuelan capitalist state, in contrast, has grown enormously. If we consider Chávez a revolutionary who was held back by the state bureaucracy, where does this bureaucracy begin? Does it include Chávez’s ministers and closest collaborators, such as Maduro or Diosdado Cabello? If so, couldn’t he, with the vast personal power guaranteed to him by a constitutional reform, have switched them out?

We need a completely different model to understand Venezuela under Chávez. Was it a bourgeois state? On the one hand, it consistently defended the private property of the means of production, which is a bourgeois state’s main function. On the other hand, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie fiercely opposed the government, attempting to topple it with multiple coup attempts. How do these two facts fit together?

Left Bonapartism

Chávez came to power as a result of the caracazo uprising in 1989. The Venezuelan state, with two thoroughly corrupt bourgeois parties alternating in government for decades, was in a deep crisis. All over Latin America, the neoliberal offensive of U.S. imperialism led to social explosions. These explosions did not lead to revolutions, however. Instead, a series of “post-neoliberal” governments were able to channel the protest into institutional channels. This became known as the “pink tide.” But Chávez, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and others were not leading revolts — quite the opposite, they were containing them.

Of all these left-wing governments, Chávez was among the earliest and the most radical. The “pink tide” governments used the income based on high prices for raw materials to finance social programs. Venezuela, with its vast oil reserves, had a particularly large excess of cash that could be distributed to the working and poor masses. In these countries, where mass movements had brought down neoliberal governments, these “progressive” politicians were able to strengthen the state and reconstitute its legitimacy. They never broke with the domination of U.S. imperialism, which has ruled over Latin America for more than a century. They might have spoken out against Yankee rule but never moved decisively against the economic interests of U.S. corporations.

Leon Trotsky wrote extensively about Latin America during his final exile in Mexico, from 1937 until his assassination by a Stalinist agent in 1940. Trotsky’s Escritos Latinoamericanos (Latin American Writings) are unfortunately not well known to readers in English. In different articles, Trotsky developed the concept of “Bonapartism sui generis” in Latin America. In a brilliant, short essay on “Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management” that was never published before his death, Trotsky offered the following outline:

In the industrially backward countries foreign capital plays a decisive role. Hence the relative weakness of the national bourgeoisie in relation to the national proletariat. This creates special conditions of state power. The government veers between foreign and domestic capital, between the weak national bourgeoisie and the relatively powerful proletariat. This gives the government a Bonapartist character of a distinctive character. It raises itself, so to speak, above classes. Actually, it can govern either by making itself the instrument of foreign capitalism and holding the proletariat in the chains of a police dictatorship, or by maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists.

Trotsky applied this category of “Bonapartism sui generis” (of a different type) to the government of Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico, which emerged from the throes of the revolution. In 1938, Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry, which had been controlled by British and U.S. capital. Trotsky gave full support to the nationalization, writing:

Without giving up its own identity, every honest working class organization of the entire world, and first of all in Great Britain, is duty-bound — to take an irreconcilable position against the imperialist robbers, their diplomacy, their press, and their fascist hirelings.

At the same time, Trotsky refused to give any support to the Cárdenas government, which, despite its progressive, anti-imperialist measures remained a bourgeois government. In order for Mexico to advance from nationalizations under a bourgeois state toward actual socialism, Trotsky named a single decisive factor:

…the existence of a revolutionary Marxist party that carefully studies every form of working class activity, criticizes every deviation, educates and organizes the workers, wins influence in the trade unions, and assures a revolutionary workers’ representation in nationalized industry.

Latin America in the 20th Century

Trotsky could have been describing Chávez when he spoke of “maneuvering with the proletariat and even going so far as to make concessions to it, thus gaining the possibility of a certain freedom from the foreign capitalists.” With this balancing act between the working masses on the one hand and imperialist capital on the other, the state apparatus seemed to be completely independent. 

The term Bonapartism goes back to Karl Marx’s analysis of how Louis Bonaparte became the French emperor in 1852. Marx described the class relations “that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” The lumpen emperor balanced between different classes at a moment when the bourgeoisie was too weak to rule on its own. Bonaparte’s regime defended bourgeois property while completely excluding the bourgeoisie from power. As Marx wrote of this disempowered ruling class: “in order to save its purse it must forfeit the crown.”

The term Bonapartism was used to describe different governments balancing between opposing class forces. Friedrich Engels used the term to analyze Otto von Bismarck’s rule in Germany; Trotsky used the image of balancing to describe the opposing phenomena of fascism and Stalinism.

You might also be interested in: Trotsky, Latin America, and U.S. Imperialism

Over the course of the twentieth century in Latin America, a special form of Bonapartism emerged. Cárdenas was merely one representative of a type of government that took root in many countries.

The bourgeoisie of a dependent, semi-colonial country like Venezuela is really only half a ruling class; imperialist capital dominates in all sectors of the economy. The bourgeoisie did not come to power by overthrowing the landed oligarchs; rather, it fused with them. Latin American capitalists took on a role as subordinate agents of imperialism, and the Venezuelan bourgeoisie was always a particularly decadent example of this, exporting oil to the U.S. and investing the profits into crass consumption of luxury goods.

And yet, certain elements of the bourgeoisie would question their class role of imperialism’s servants. Couldn’t they take a bigger slice of the wealth being plundered from their country? Couldn’t they become more independent? This would, of course, require a serious struggle against imperialism. And the bourgeoisie, as a class, is too weak, too dependent on imperialism, and too afraid of the toiling masses to attempt any struggle.

Therefore, individuals from the edges of the ruling class can step onto the stage of history in order to carry out the struggle that the bourgeoisie desperately wants to avoid. These are often young intellectuals or military officers from the middle classes. If they come to power, they will offer reforms to win the support of the masses, but without challenging private ownership of the means of production.

If such a left Bonapartist government comes to power, it will try to reshape the national economy, less focussed on export to the imperialist centers and more on national production. This means pushing some capitalists to the sidelines and elevating others. Such governments often talk about “revolutions,” but their aims are not anti-capitalist but rather about pushing for the long-term class interests of the bourgeoisie, over the short-term interests of individual bourgeois who don’t want their deals with Yankee corporations disturbed.

In order to resist the constant pressure of imperialism — in the form of sanctions, coup attempts, invasions, and a million other forms of domination — a left Bonapartist government needs to mobilize the workers and the poor. And yet, these mobilizations must not be allowed to go “too far” and question the rule of capital itself. This is why such governments create apparatuses to control the masses: “revolutionary” parties, trade unions, peasant associations, and many other organizations, all carefully controlled by the state.

Many countries of Latin America have seen such governments of this type, with their own national particularities. Examples could include, besides Cárdenas in Mexico, Juan Perón in Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado in Peru, Juan José Torres in Bolivia, or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Only in one case has the victory of such a party led to the abolition of capitalism: in Cuba in 1959, because of the ceaseless attacks by U.S. imperialism, Fidel Castro’s bourgeois nationalist M-26-J was forced to expropriate the capitalists and form a Stalinist party.

The Question of the Party

Trotsky’s program for socialist revolution in Latin America is centered on the independence of the working class. Given the weakness and cowardice of the national bourgeoisie, the working class is the only force that can lead the struggle against imperialism to victory. This is why Trotsky opposed attempts by left Bonapartist governments to gain control over the workers’ movement. The workers could support individual progressive measures against imperialism, such as the nationalization of Mexico’s oil, while organizing as an independent political force to fight for their own program.

Cárdenas formed a Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM), later reorganized as the PRI, to control the mass movement. This is remarkably similar to Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Chávez called on “the workers, the housewives, the professionals and technicians, the nationalist businessmen… to build a single political instrument.” In fact, the new PSUV even included “socialist businessmen” who were in favor of Chávez’s socialism. These capitalists applauded Chávez for saying he would “nationalize” companies and compensate their former owners above market value.

The PSUV, to use a category developed by Trotsky, represents a “People’s Front in the form of a party.” It is an attempt to tie the working class to the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. And Trotsky, who fought consistently against this kind of class collaboration, made clear: “Of course, we cannot enter such a party.” He only allowed that “we can create a nucleus in it in order to win the workers and separate them from the bourgeoisie.” It is therefore painfully ironic that many socialists who trace their heritage back to Leon Trotsky have offered their support to Chávez’s party.

For a Socialist Solution to the Crisis

Ultimately, the Chávez government never represented more than a weak form of “Bonapartism sui generis” in Latin America. Lázaro Cárdenas, who never claimed to be a socialist, nationalized Mexico’s oil industry against the pressures of U.S. and British imperialism. Chávez never attempted anything so bold. His government programs were about distributing income from oil exports to provide charity to the masses. As soon as the oil price crashed, the entire project was doomed to failure.

Where he was more successful was in taking the Venezuelan mass movement, which had once shaken the foundations of capitalism with the caracazo, and submitting it to the bourgeois state. Now the masses, in the face of the crisis, have to confront a strengthened military and repressive apparatus. As a result, millions have been forced to flee the country, while the new “Bolibourgeoisie,” the “red millionaires” who got rich under Chávez, are displaying their wealth openly.

Part of Chávez’s political weakness is that in contrast to Cárdenas, he was never basing himself even partially on the organized workers’ movement in Venezuela, but rather on the poor masses. The workers’ movement, under Chávez’s government, was put under increasing state control. Perversely, Chávez quoted Rosa Luxemburg on this point: while she was arguing that a trade union should not be independent of a revolutionary socialist party, Chávez wanted unions to be subordinate to his government!

Fighting for a socialist solution to the crisis in Venezuela requires that workers organize independently — of both the Chávez/Maduro governments and of the pro-imperialist opposition. Socialists who call on workers to organize together with the state apparatus and “nationalist businessmen” are not driving the “Bolivarian Revolution” forward — they are strengthening a bourgeois apparatus to hold back the workers.

As Marxists, our main task in the United States is to oppose the criminal policies of U.S. imperialism. But we do this without giving any support to a Bonapartist government — neither to the dynamic Bonapartism of Chávez, nor to the decaying Bonapartism of Maduro. We support any genuine steps against imperialism — even though, in the case of Chávez, those steps were very small.

It would be a colossal error to unite with the pro-imperialist opponents of such governments, in the name of fighting for “democracy” or against “authoritarianism,” without examining the specific class forces in each camp. Revolutionaries were on the front lines of the struggle against the coup attempt against Chávez in 2002 and other struggles.

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However, it would also be a mistake to extend any kind of political support to a bourgeois, Bonapartist government. Calling on such a government to advance towards socialism means fundamentally understanding the role and the limits of such a project. And only when the working class has a clear understanding of the state it is facing will it be able to beat that state and establish socialism.

Taking steps toward socialism in Venezuela requires that the working class play an independent role. This means organizing independently of the Maduro government and the PSUV, and fighting against state control of unions. In Venezuela, as everywhere else in the world, revolutionaries are fundamentally fighting for the political independence of the working class.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Groups with a revolutionary socialist identity that supported Chávez’s government included the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the International Marxist Tendency, the International Revolutionary Left (formerly El Militante), and the Socialist Workers Movement (MST) of Argentina. Unfortunately, this short article gives us no space to examine the different positions of the Trotsko-Chavista Left.

About author

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from New York City. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which appeared last year in German and this year in English. He is on the autism spectrum.