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Socialism back on the agenda
How to advance the revolution
LESS THAN 15 years ago leading philosophers, capitalist commentators and politicians hurried to the burial ground of the bureaucratic Stalinist states of Russia and Eastern Europe and declared socialism dead. Never again would the poor of the world, never mind the working class, look towards an alternative to the market and genuine socialist ideas as a means of improving their living standards and of gaining control over the fruits of their labour.
Karl Debbaut, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)
But, as events in Latin America demonstrate, to paraphrase Mark Twain, 'rumours of socialism's death have been greatly exaggerated'.
Latin America has seen big political upheavals, mass struggles and, in countries like Bolivia, open revolts against the experience of 'neo-liberalism' ie privatisations, attacks on pensions and welfare provisions, deregulation of labour, free movement of capital, etc, to restore capitalist profitability.
The continent has seen the emergence of a mass anti-capitalist consciousness. In Venezuela this has gone even further, with sections of workers and rural and urban poor looking towards the ideas of socialism to defend and deepen the 'Bolivarian revolution'.
In one opinion poll, the results of which were collected between May and June this year, 48% of those questioned said that given the choice they would prefer to live under a socialist government. Only 29% of the people declared their preference for a capitalist government.
THE RADICAL populist regime of Hugo Chavez - elected, defended and re-elected by the masses - has implemented many important social reforms. Chavez (whose support within Venezuela is at an all-time high), concluded his speech at the 60th UN general assembly by mentioning the achievements of his government in nearly seven years.
According to Chavez, 1.4 million Venezuelans who were previously excluded from education due to poverty have been included in the education system. 70% of Venezuela's population now enjoy access to free health care and over 1.7 million tonnes of food is being provided to 12 million Venezuelans at reduced prices. These reforms are in complete contrast to the devastating neo-liberal policies implemented in the rest of Latin America over the same period.
Venezuela is now described by representatives of the US government as the single most important threat to US domination of the region. Time after time the Chavez government has come under attack from the forces of imperialism and their Quisling collaborators in Venezuela.
These attacks have involved the April 2002 US-sponsored coup, the employers' lock-out in December 2002/January 2003 and last year's recall referendum to end Chavez's presidency.
In all these confrontations the president and his government have been saved by the mobilisation of the working class and the urban and peasant poor. At each turn they have demonstrated tremendous determination and audacity. Yet, in most cases Chavez has initially sought to accommodate his opponents with calls for "national unity".
Socialism in the 21st century
THE DEFEAT of the attempted coup gave a great impulse to the revolutionary process. It was the starting point for what characterises every real revolutionary movement. The masses entered the arena of history and came out on the streets to do 'politics' ie the struggle over which class controls society.
The mobilisations, and specifically the groundswell of support for Chavez in the recall referendum, have pushed the president and part of the government to the left. This has resulted in, for example, the nationalisation of companies like Venepal (now renamed Invepal) - one of the most important paper producing factories in Venezuela.
Chavez declared that his once-held belief of looking for 'a third way', not having to choose between socialism and capitalism, is a farce and that the only alternative to capitalism is socialism. This debate on the development of socialism as a necessary alternative to capitalism has become crucial for the further development of the Venezuelan revolution.
In his speech for this year's May Day parade, Chavez declared that his Venezuelan government was in fact a "workers' government". At the opening rally of the World Festival for Youth and Students in Caracas this year the delegates were greeted by a banner reading "Welcome to the Socialist Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela".
ALTHOUGH THE radicalisation of the Bolivarian revolution is embraced by the activists, trade unionists and representatives of the poor working-class neighbourhoods, many are worried for the future. They are eager for Chavez to take more drastic measures as a true workers' government would.
Such a government would take the necessary steps to break with capitalism and landlordism, including the nationalisation of the oil and gas industry, the banks and financial institutions and the leading private companies. These nationalised concerns would be run under democratic workers' control and management, as part as a national plan of production.
In early September Chavez announced that the government will no longer grant private, national or foreign mining concessions. Instead it would create a national state-owned mining company that will take charge of all mining activities in the country. This is one example of Chavez's policy to create national companies, state owned or partly state-owned, in competition with the private sector.
This policy, funded with oil dollars, is no recipe to break with capitalism. In the last few weeks Chavez has announced that the Bolivarian government will send commissioners to take seats on the boards of private banks to oversee their dealings.
This policy, whilst infuriating the capitalist class and imperialism and possibly making it harder for the financial institutions to dodge taxes and finance crime, does not guarantee any real influence or control over finance capital.
Chavez might end up having the worst of both worlds, an infuriated national and international capitalist class on the one hand and workers frustrated with the lack of progress made by the revolution on the other.
This is the typical mistake of conventional 'radical' reformism of just wounding capitalism, trying to pull the proverbial tiger's teeth one by one, whilst allowing its control over productive forces and large swathes of its apparatus to remain intact
Co-management or workers' control
THIS SUMMER Chavez announced the future nationalisation of about 700 non-productive companies and disclosed a list of another 1,400 companies currently under investigation for future expropriation. Unfortunately, these new measures follow the Bolivarian template. These are companies already closed down by the employers and the list for future nationalisations is made up of companies currently working at less than 50% of their capacity.
Chavez declared that expropriation will only be used as a measure of last resort and he asked for the collaboration of local authorities and governors. The message to the owners of the companies under review was that, on the condition that they allowed a form of co-management with workers, they could reclaim their property and apply for state subsidies.
Furthermore, co-management as the Bolivarian government sees it is a far cry from workers' control and management. In some cases, like in the aluminium producer Alcasa, the workers, under the leadership of the UNT trade union, have introduced important elements of workers' control. In Alcasa it is the workforce that elects the managers and managers are subject to recall. People who are elected to the position of manager can only accept on the basis of their previous wages.
Alcasa is the exception. In general there are many complaints about the co-management system. Workers get squashed between the Ch‡vista bureaucracy on the one hand, the previous managers on the other, and in some cases their own trade union bureaucracy.
In Invepal, the paper mill, the trade union leaders decided to dismantle their union and are hoping to buy off the state's stake in the company. In the state-owned electricity company CADAFE, for example, the company's managers wanted to limit the co-management of workers to secondary aspects of production. The managers declared that "there can be no workers' participation in strategic industries".
IN REALITY, the Venezuelan economy is still capitalist. This does not mean that the few experiments with workers' control are unimportant. The trade unions, and indeed all other fighting organisations of the working class, should fight for workers' control in individual workplaces as a start of its extension to all branches of industry.
Workers' control should allow the workers to be in command of the day-to-day production in the factory and give them control over hiring and firing.
Workers, through their general assemblies and councils in the workplace, should have full access to the books and all other so-called secrets of the factory, of entire industries and of the national economy as a whole. Thus the workers can begin to discover the actual share of the national economy appropriated by individual capitalists, trusts and by the exploiters as a whole.
The working out of the most elementary plan of national production from the point of view of the exploited is impossible without workers' control, ie, without revealing all the open and hidden methods of the capitalist economy.
In that sense workers' control, even under the general conditions of capitalism, can be a school for workers' management and the democratically planned economy. It is the basis on which workers can take over the management of the nationalised industry.
Independent working class organisation
A REVOLUTION cannot be dropped on the masses from above. It requires the conscious organisation and activity of the working class, implementing and testing its own programme to break with capitalism.
The need for the working class, together with the urban and rural poor and all those exploited by capitalism, to develop its own independent organisations is becoming ever more pressing. The most urgent task of the day is to build an independent revolutionary mass organisation of the working class, armed with a programme of socialist revolution.
The task of the revolutionary party is to arm the masses with clear ideas and programme, to draw out the collective lessons of the class struggle and past revolutions.
Implementing its programme, a revolutionary party would lift the consciousness of the working class about its own role and weight in society and in the revolutionary process.
A revolutionary party would channel the energy of the working class towards the conscious act of overthrowing capitalism and the construction of a socialist society.
A longer version of this article can be found on www.socialistworld.net
See also Socialism Today Issue 95, October 2005
Unions' key role in changing society
THE UNT, the National Union of Venezuelan workers, is a very young organisation. Since its inception in May 2003 workers have embraced the UNT as an alternative to the old and corrupt trade union confederation CTV. The CTV leadership cooperated with the reform and privatisation programme of the Caldera government in the mid-1990s and was, quite rightly, seen as being hand-in-glove with the capitalists and imperialism.
Most commentators agree that the UNT has already overtaken the CTV as the main trade union federation. According to the Ministry of Labour, 76.5% of collective agreements signed in 2003-04 were with unions affiliated with the UNT, and only 20.2% with the CTV.
However, half of all workers are employed in the informal sector of the economy and most at this stage are not in unions. But the UNT is at the forefront of working-class involvement in the Bolivarian revolution.
The process in the factories and communities is very dynamic. Workers take initiatives to build UNT branches in their workplaces. Young workers' leaders emerge and the experience of the struggle - but also of the limitations of the Bolivarian process - lead them to far-reaching conclusions.
Generally speaking, the UNT militants are not only activists in the workplaces. They take part in all the aspects of the Bolivarian revolution including in the communities and the cooperatives.
They have a thousand stories about the magnificent and self-sacrificing work that is being done by the inhabitants and activists. They have hundreds of examples to illustrate the limits of this process, the slowness of the government and officials, and sabotage by state bureaucracy and the capitalist opposition.
There are many examples of working-class struggle against parts of the state and government bureaucracy. In the first week of September, for example, a group of workers of the PDVSA-Anaco plant surprised public opinion by staging a protest in front of the Mira-Flores, the Presidential palace, for three days.
When they were cleared away by the National Guard early one morning they decided to go to the parliament building and a group of them staged a 'bleeding protest' cutting themselves on the arms and chest with pieces of broken glass.
These 500 workers, protesting against their unfair dismissal, were heroes less than two years ago. Then, they got a special mention in the PDVSA magazine for their heroic resistance in defeating the bosses' lock-out.
Other protests are taking place against unfair dismissals, the withholding of pay or other irregularities. Mostly these conflicts are part of an exchange of blows between workers starting to unionise and change the conditions in the factories and the ferocious response by the private-sector employers. Some of these employers have very good relations with parts of the state machine or local mayors, governors, etc.
The task for the UNT and its leadership is to defend the interests of the working class in the class struggle and promote its independence. The UNT's policies should not be tied to those of the government or see itself as an auxiliary force in the revolutionary process.
If it has a duty to support in words and deeds the positive sides of government policy, it also has a duty towards the workers and the exploited peoples of Venezuela to criticise and struggle against what goes against the interests of the workers and the people in general.
The task for the UNT is to become the living expression of the struggle waged by the exploited masses. If it succeeds the UNT can fulfil its historical role and become the organisational centre of the revolutionary masses in the struggle for revolutionary socialism.
Social reforms dependent on oil boom
THE VENEZUELAN economy has known rapid growth in 2004 and prospects for 2005 look equally rosy. According to the central bank of Venezuela the economy grew by 17.3% in 2004, although part of this can be explained as a recovery from the earlier bosses' lock out. For 2005, economic growth is expected to reach 7.9%.
Oil and oil exports play a very important part in this. The oil economy accounts for 80% of the country's exports and Venezuela has benefited enormously from the rise in prices. The price of a barrel of Venezuelan crude rose from $20.21 in 2001 to $42.25 in 2005 (figures are annual averages). This has meant a huge inflow of extra capital.
In the first quarter of this year the national oil company received $7,600 million in direct sales. On the basis of these figures they would realise $30,400 million for the whole of 2005.
Oil money has allowed President Chavez to buy the most priceless of commodities in politics - time. The increased spending is one of the reasons that have allowed Chavez to stay in power for seven years whilst improving the day-to-day lives of the workers and poor and extend his base in society.
If oil prices come down as a possible result of a world economic crisis of capitalism, this will have the reverse effect on the Venezuelan economy, with an almost immediate worsening of employment, revenue and living standards for the Venezuelan working class.
Socialists and the Venezuelan revolution by Tony Saunois, £2.50 inc. postage
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In The Socialist 13 October 2005: