Over the May bank holiday weekend red youth participated in a weekend of discussion and debate on V I Lenin’s text The State and Revolution with specific reference to Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution. We were very pleased to be joined by two comrades from Venezuela; Marcos Garcia and Helena Menendez. In total, four sessions over two days debated Lenin’s teachings on the State and the challenges facing the Venezuelan masses.
We reproduce below two talks given by young members of the CPGB-ML. The first, giving a few introductory remarks on Lenin’s State and Revolution and the latter, an introduction to the sessions on Venezuela. Many comrades contributed to the discussion on the nature of the British state and its ongoing political crisis amongst the bourgeois parties over Brexit. On Brexit, comrades expressed their belief that a generally correct tactical approach to the EU elections had been vocalised by George Galloway in recent weeks, and pretty much universal support was given to supporting the Brexit party in the upcoming 23 May EU elections, not withstanding our disagreements and the risks inherent in such a move. This analysis of the school was fed back to the central committee of the CPGB-ML afterwards, leading to the development of the article Galloway, Farage and the Brexit party
class society and the state
Lenin wrote The State and Revolution while underground in August and September 1917. He had gone underground because the Tsarist police were looking to arrest him and had been moved out of Saint Petersburg by Sverdlov and Stalin to a hut near Razliv, close to the Finnish border. Lenin spoke of the necessity of theoretically elaborating the question of the state during the latter half of 1916. At that time he wrote a note entitled “The Youth International” in which he criticized Bukharin’s anti-Marxist stand on the question of the state and promised to write a detailed article on the Marxist attitude to the state. In a letter to Kollontai dated February 17, 1917, Lenin stated that he had almost finished his material on the Marxist attitude to the state. This material was closely written in small handwriting in a blue-covered notebook entitled Marxism on the State. It contained a collection of quotations from Marx and Engels and excerpts from books by Kautsky, Pannekoek and Bernstein, with Lenin’s critical annotations, conclusions and generalizations.
According to the outlined plan, The State and Revolution was to contain seven chapters, but the seventh and last chapter, “The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917,” remained unwritten. Concerning the publication of the book Lenin wrote in his postscript,
“This pamphlet was written in August and September 1917. I had already drawn up the plan for the next, the seventh, chapter… but except for the title I had no time to write a single line of the chapter; I was “interrupted” by a political crisis — the eve of the October Revolution of 1917. Such an “interruption” can only be welcomed; but the writing of the second part of the pamphlet will probably have to be put off for a long time. It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it.”
We have organised this study school to refresh ourselves in Lenin’s State and Revolution, but not in a dry way. The Brexit referendum and the attempted coup this last week in Venezuela are just two stories on the front pages which offer us evidence of the validity of the Leninist teachings on the State, on democracy and dictatorship, and through these and other topical issues of our day we can reach out and develop amongst advanced workers a understanding of the state based upon science, based upon the teachings of Marxism-Leninism.
This short presentation will refresh you upon the some of the key ideas in the first half of Lenin’s State and Revolution. Our discussion afterwards should aim to draw parallels and examples from present day life. Later today and tomorrow we will look more closely at Venezuela where the Leninist teachings on this question are a matter of life and death for the Bolivarian revolution. This will help us to cement our understanding, dispel any myths or un-Marxist ideas which have permeated our thinking, and give us ideas with which to develop our propaganda amongst the British working class whom we wish to teach the science of socialism.
In doing so we might remember Lenin’s words:
“All the social-chauvinists are now “Marxists” (don’t laugh!)”
Of course, we find ourselves at a time in Britain when what is referred to as the ‘political left’ finds itself dominated by social-democracy, Trotskyism and identity politics. Such a hostile and putrid atmosphere inevitably infects all of us and so it is incumbent upon us to constantly relearn the basics of Marxism, of scientific socialism, of historical and dialectical materialism. That is the purpose of self-study, of group study classes, and of coming together in larger classes like this to learn our scientific socialism from one another and from Lenin.
the state as the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms:
To understand the modern bourgeois state we must briefly understand how society developed to capitalism. J V Stalin put the question this way in his pamphlet Dialectical and Historical Materialism:
“What… is the chief force in the complex of conditions of material life of society which determines the physiognomy of society, the character of the social system, the development of society from one system to another?
This force, historical materialism holds, is the method of procuring the means of life necessary for human existence, the mode of production of material values — food, clothing, foot wear, houses, fuel, instruments of production, etc. — which are indispensable for the life and development of society.
In order to live, people must have food, clothing, footwear, shelter, fuel, etc.; in order to have these material values, people must produce them; and in order to produce them, people must have the instruments of production with which food, clothing, footwear, shelter, fuel, etc., are produced; they must be able to produce these instruments and to use them.
The instruments of production wherewith material values are produced, the people who operate the instruments of production and carry on the production of material values thanks to a certain production experience and labour skill — all these elements jointly constitute the productive forces of society.” (J V Stalin)
From the decay of primitive communism arose the division of exploiters and exploited in society, the exploitation of one class by another, the forms of which characterizes the different stages of development of class society.
The first great division of exploiter and exploited was that of slavery, followed by serfdom, and then by wage labour in the modern epoch.
Each form of exploiting society is distinguished by its own structure of social production as well as its own type of production relations.
“Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” (Marx and Engels, Vol. V, p. 364.)
It is important to remember that the state did not always exist, and will not always exist being but only a transitional stage, that of class society.
In the era of slavery, slave labour was performed under the constant threat of punishment, the great achievements of Greece and Rome were cultures built on the bones of millions of slaves, thus the epoch of slavery was one of bloody class struggle, from the Helot uprisings in Sparta to the Servile wars of the Roman Republic. Even in the era of slavery the state took a multitude of forms, from monarchies to republics, they were however, invariably the tool of domination of the slave master over the slave.
From the decay of slave society arose feudalism, the exploitation of the peasantry by the landowners, the lords, earls, barons etc who took into their hands the supreme power of the land worked by the peasants. And thus the peasant had to submit to a variety of services to their lords for the right to work the land. Yet, as the conditions of exploitation became more acute, as feudalism progressed to serfdom, so did the class struggle, peasant uprisings sometimes lasting decades occurred throughout much of Europe in the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. But all were crushed by the states of the landlords, the kingdoms, and later, the absolute monarchies. As William Paul wrote:
“During the middle ages the only centralised and semi-international institution was the Roman Catholic Church. It had shaped and organised itself in the image of the Roman State. Whatever merits the Church may have had they were not due so much to its religious inspiration as to its method of temporal organisation and its economic power. The Roman State urged the peoples of all lands to come under its protecting wing; it desired everyone to look upon it as the saviour against all enemies; and to seek no other power that that situated at Rome, which acted as a benevolent father to all who accepted its guardianship and paid it tribute. The Roman Catholic Church organised itself upon a similar basis. So, when the Roman State had passed away, its ghost, rigged out in all the trappings and drapery of centralised authority, haunted Europe in the name of religion” (William Paul – the State its Origins and Function) The modern day European Union seems to see itself in much the same vein!
Of course, from the ashes of feudalism, as serfdom, arose capitalism and the bourgeois state. And much like the slave states of Rome and Sparta and the feudal principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, the bourgeois state, whether a monarchy, republic or confederation, is an apparatus by which one class oppresses another, one of the means by which the bourgeois oppresses the proletariat, in order to dominate them so as to exploit them. As Lenin writes,
“The state is a special organization of force; it is an organization of violence for the suppression of some class. What class must the proletariat suppress? Naturally, only the exploiting class, i.e., the bourgeoisie. The toilers need a state only to suppress the resistance of the exploiters, and only the proletariat is in a position to direct this suppression, carry it out; for the proletariat is the only class that is consistently revolutionary, the only class that can unite all the toilers and the exploited in the struggle against the bourgeoisie, in completely displacing it.” (Lenin, p.28 Chapter 2 S&R)
The State is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it is cleft into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel.
I shall borrow the passage Lenin takes from Engels to refute the distortions of Marxism, and sum up a scientific historical analysis of the state from the Origins of the Family:
“The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society without; just as little is it ‘the reality of the ethical idea,’ ‘the image and reality of reason,’ as Hegel maintains.
…it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that …in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in sterile struggle, a power seemingly standing above society became necessary for the purpose of moderating the conflict, of keeping it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society, but placing itself above it, and increasingly alienating itself from it, is the state.”
Lenin points out that this encapsulates concisely the historical role of the state, firstly that the state is the product of irreconcilable class antagonism, and secondly that the state arises when, where and to the extent that such class antagonisms objectively cannot be reconciled, as a means of maintaining exploiting class power. And conversely that the existence of the state proves class antagonisms are irreconcilable.
Of course, the petit bourgeoisie, and indeed our social democratic Labour party will claim the state is the embodiment of our national will, or national unity, a means of reconciliation between all classes who are equal in opportunity, the welfare state, law and order are things upon which we all agree, based upon universal values, human rights, on natural justice etc. Lenin wrote that,
However we know the state is the organ of class rule, the means by which one class oppresses another. ‘Law and order’ being the means of the legalisation, perpetuation and moderation of this oppression, just as the divine right of kings was before it.
The social democrats, Trotskyites like the socialist-revolutionaries and Mensheviks before them fail again and again to understand that you cannot reconcile the irreconcilable, and that the state is the rule of one class OVER another.
“The petty-bourgeois democrats, those sham Socialists who have replaced class struggle by dreams of class harmony, even pictured the socialist transformation in a dreamy fashion — not as the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class, but as the peaceful submission of the minority to the majority which has become conscious of its aims. This petty-bourgeois utopia which is inseparably connected with the idea of the state being above classes, led in practice to the betrayal of the interests of the, toiling classes, as was shown, for example, by the history the French revolutions of 1848 and 1871, and by the experience of “Socialist” participation in bourgeois cabinets in England, France, Italy and other countries at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Marx fought all his life against this petty-bourgeois Socialism — now resurrected in Russia by the Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik parties. He applied his teaching on the class struggle consistently, down to the teaching on political power, the teaching on the state.” (Lenin S&R p.29)
Of course, the logical conclusion and Lenin’s emphasis of this irreconcilable contradiction is this: that the liberation of the proletariat is impossible not only without violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, as the state itself is an organisation of violence used by one class to subject another class, which is its chief function.
You can’t talk a rich man out of their money, you have to hold a shank to him.
Of course, this scientific fact is also forgotten by some of our contemporaries, just as it was by the likes of Kautsky.
special bodies of armed men, prisons, etc:
There are two distinguishing features of the bourgeois state compared to the ancient tribes and clans. The first is the division of its subjects into territories.
The second, in the passing of primitive communism to the era of class society, is the formation of special bodies of armed men, which, with the division of society into classes has made self acting armed organisation of the population impossible as such organisations in class society would give means for uprising by the exploited.
State power, arising from society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself evermore from it, consists of special bodies of armed men with prisons and other material, institutions and means of coercion at their disposal.
History has shown us that in each revolution, with the destruction of the old state apparatus, the new exploiter class strives to create its own special bodies of armed men to serve it, e.g. the New Model Army, and how the oppressed and exploited class strives to create a new organisation of this kind in order to serve the exploited.
The public power of the special bodies of armed men grows stronger as class contradictions and the acuteness of exploitation grow and as the rivalry and competition of bourgeois states grows. And with the rise of imperialism the imperialist powers in their division of the world raced to produce military and naval armaments in hideous numbers. This rivalry inevitably led to inter-imperialist war.
the state as an instrument for the exploitation of the oppressed class
With each revolution, each passing stage, the state apparatus is rebuilt and further strengthened. In the case of the bourgeois state, whether monarchy, parliamentarian or a republic, capital rules. The preferential choice for the bourgeoisie however is that of the democratic republic.
Capital is far better secured in a democratic republic as its power can be most securely established, via the direct corruption of officials, via means of an alliance of the government and the stock exchange, to such an extent, that no change of leader, party or institutions can shake it.
But nevertheless, even the most ‘democratic’ state is the organised violence of the exploiter minority directed against the exploited masses.
The right to vote – universal suffrage – is merely an extension of this bourgeois charade. The best voting can offer, is to act as a guage of the maturity of the working class. No more. So if workers vote for a workers party, it shows they are mature enough to do so. Those who think voting can offer anything more are sorely deluded. Lenin remarked,
“To decide once every few years which member of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament — such is the real essence of bourgeois parliamentarism, not only in parliamentary-constitutional monarchies, but also in the most democratic republics.” (Lenin S&R)
Yet the false prophets, the Trots, the Revisos, still flog the gospel of the parliamentary road, the voted path for salvation, to the working class.
This isn’t a relatively false position. It is an absolutely false position. The labour party will not usher in socialism.
class struggle – Marx’s biggest contribution? No
Lenin is at pains to point out that class struggle is not the most important contribution of Marxism. Lenin explains that this is an opportunist distortion that seeks to hide that even the bourgeoisie recognise the existence of the class struggle. Quoting Marx who said,
“. . . no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society, nor yet the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle of the classes and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production [historische Entwicklung sphasen der Produktion ]; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. . . .”
Lenin explains that “In these words Marx succeeded in expressing with striking clarity, firstly, the chief and radical difference between his teaching and that of the foremost and most profound thinkers of the bourgeoisie; and, secondly, the essence of his teaching on the state.
It is often said and written that the main point in Marx’s teachings is the class struggle; but this is not true. And from this untruth very often springs the opportunist distortion of Marxism, its falsification in such a way as to make it acceptable to the bourgeoisie. For the doctrine of the class struggle was created not by Marx, but by the bourgeoisie before Marx, and generally speaking it is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Those who recognize only the class struggle are not yet Marxists; they may be found to be still within the boundaries of bourgeois thinking and bourgeois politics. To confine Marxism to the doctrine of the class struggle means curtailing Marxism, distorting it, reducing it to something which is acceptable to the bourgeoisie. Only he is a Marxist who extends the recognition of the class struggle to the recogition of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is what constitutes the most profound difference between the Marxist and the ordinary petty (as well as big) bourgeois. This is the touchstone on which the real understanding and recognition of Marxism is to be tested. And it is not surprising that when the history of Europe brought the working class face to face with this question as a practical issue, not only all the opportunists and reformists, but all the “Kautskyites” (people who vacillate between reformism and Marxism) proved to be miserable philistines and petty-bourgeois democrats who repudiate the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Lenin S&R Chapter 2.3)
dictatorship of the proletariat
“The essence of Marx’s teaching on the state has been mastered only by those who understand that the dictatorship of a single class is necessary not only for every class society in general, not only for the proletariat which has overthrown the bourgeoisie, but also for the entire historical period which separates capitalism from “classless society,” from Communism. The forms of bourgeois states are extremely varied, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The transition from capitalism to Communism certainly cannot but yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Lenin S&R)
To transfer from a exploitative class society to a classless society is no easy task, but it is an impossible task if it is not recognised that the state itself is an instrument of power, and that a dictatorship of the proletariat, the workers, is the means by which classless society is brought about.
Venezuela has long been held up by revisionists and Trotskyites as being the supreme proof that socialism could be brought into existence peacefully through the ballot box, but Venezuela’s situation proves that this is simply not true. Any government that stands up against the interests of imperialism is liable to be subjected to extreme violence unless, having been ruthlessly undermined by sanctions and/or internal sabotage, it departs the scene willingly, perhaps through the ballot box. In the present circumstances of imperialist world domination and overwhelming financial power and fire power, peaceful proletarian takeover is out of the question. The unsuccessful coup attempt in 2002 has been followed by acts of open economic war and sabotage, not least the strike by oil workers orchestrated in 2003, the currency manipulation, power cuts of recent years and the food hoarding. Even more flagrantly US imperialism supported by its flunkeys across the world has openly attempted further military coups, including, but not limited to the plot discovered in the air force in 2015, the attempt on Maduro’s life in 2018, and the farcical last-ditch attempt by Guaido to launch an uprising on Tuesday last having appointed himself President in January with the full backing of the USA and the EU.
Such a situation demonstrates the necessity of clear understanding of this question. One only has to look at the democratic actions of our own bourgeoisie when things start to slip from their grasp. The desperate attempts to delay or annul the result of the referendum clearly show to working people that the state, far from acting in a democratic manner, acts in a dictatorial manner.
the “withering away” of the state and violent revolution
Marxism teaches, that where as all previous revolutions have perfected the state apparatus, the task of the proletarian revolution is to destroy, smash and break the state machine to enable the building of a proletarian dictatorship which itself is the first step towards ridding the world of the class divisions and the State once and for all.
Engels writes in Anti-Dühring:
“The proletariat seizes state power and transforms the means of production in the first instance into state property. But in doing this, it puts an end to itself as proletariat, it puts an end to all class differences and class antagonisms; it puts an end also to the state as a state. Former society, moving in class antagonisms, had need of the state, that is, an organisation of the exploiting class at each period for the maintenance of its external conditions of production; that is, therefore, mainly for the forcible holding down of the exploited class in the conditions of oppression (slavery, villeinage or serfdom, wage labour) determined by the existing mode of production.
The state was the official representative of society as a whole, its summation in a visible corporation; but it was this only in so far as it was the state of that class which itself, in its epoch, represented society as a whole: in ancient times, the state of the slave-owning citizens; in the Middle Ages, of the feudal nobility; in our epoch, of the bourgeoisie. When ultimately it becomes really representative of society as a whole, it makes itself superfluous. As soon as there s no longer any class of society to be held in subjection; as soon as, along with class domination and the struggle for individual existence based on the anarchy of production hitherto, the collisions and excesses arising from these have also been abolished, there is nothing more to be repressed which would make a special repressive force, a state, necessary.
The first act in which the state really comes forward as the representative of society as a whole – the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society – is at the same time its last independent act as a state. The interference of the state power in social relation becomes superfluous in one sphere after another, and then ceases of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of the processes of production. The state is not ‘abolished’, it withers away. It is from this standpoint that we must appraise the phrase ‘free people’s state’ – both its temporary justification for agitational purposes, and its ultimate scientific inadequacy – and also the demand of the so-called anarchists that the state should be abolished overnight.”
Lenin also remarked on this question when he uses the concrete experience of the Paris Commune to explain that,
“the Commune appears to have replaced the smashed state machine “only” by fuller democracy: abolition of the standing army; all officials to be elected and subject to recall. But as a matter of fact this “only” signifies a gigantic replacement of certain institutions by other institutions of a fundamentally different order. This is exactly a case of “quantity becoming transformed into quality”: democracy, introduced as fully and consistently as is at all conceivable, is transformed from bourgeois democracy into proletarian democracy; from the state (= a special force for the suppression of a particular class) into something which is really no longer the state.
It is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush its resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat is that it did not do this with sufficient determination. But the organ of suppression is now the majority of the population, and not a minority, as was always the case under slavery, serfdom and wage slavery. And since the majority of the people itself suppresses its oppressors, a “special force” for suppression is no longer necessary! In this sense the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power devolve upon the people as a whole the less need is there for the existence of this power.”
Venezuela, the State and Revolution
Lenin’s great work, The State and Revolution, remains a key text for comrades today who come towards the Party. The book needs to be read in study groups up and down the country, and crucially its lessons need to be brought out in modern day events and developments. What does this mean? It means critically reading and applying what we read, it means actively reading, looking for modern day examples with which to deepen our own understanding, and finding examples which can help us to illuminate Lenin’s ideas to our friends, those we meet at work and in the course of party building.
Events today in both Britain and Venezuela are affording us with numerous examples to illustrate the general truths of what Lenin described in State and Revolution. Understanding these generally applicable truths can help us dispel in the minds of workers illusions in bourgeois democracy, illusions in the very ‘democratic’ nature of the western multiparty system, illusions in the peaceful road to socialism, the parliamentary path and so on. Reading State and Revolution is not a mere lesson in Russian history. Lenin sums up the experiences of the Russian proletariat, and his summation of these practical experiences gained in the fierce struggle against Tsardom has something to teach everyone interested in the fight for socialism. Long ago, in explaining the international significance of Lenin, the experience of the Russian workers and the term Leninism, Joseph Stalin said,
“Some say that Leninism is the application of Marxism to the conditions that are peculiar to the situation in Russia. This definition contains a particle of truth, but not the whole truth by any means. Lenin, indeed, applied Marxism to Russian conditions, and applied it in a masterly way. But if Leninism were only the application of Marxism to the conditions that are peculiar to Russia it would be a purely national and only a national, a purely Russian and only a Russian, phenomenon. We know, however, that Leninism is not merely a Russian, but an international phenomenon rooted in the whole of international development…
What, then, in the last analysis, is Leninism?
Leninism is Marxism of the era of imperialism and the proletarian revolution. To be more exact, Leninism is the theory and tactics of the proletarian revolution in general, the theory and tactics of the dictatorship of the proletariat in particular.”
(J V Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, Chapter 1)
Lenin’s State and Revolution has much to teach us to help us understand events today and it is suggested that we consider Lenin’s teachings now in relation to the experiences of Venezuela and the Bolivarian revolution. Tomorrow morning comrades from the Venezuelan embassy will present us with some problems of their revolutionary process for us to consider, and at all times we ask comrades to think about how these questions generally apply to Britain, to the interests of British workers and the question of the revolution here at home.
Origins of the Bolivarian Revolution
Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998, and re-elected in 2000, by the Venezuelan masses demanding an improvement in their standard of living. Their struggle had been intensifying since 1989 when Carlos Andres Perez bowed to an IMF diktat to deprive them of the little they had. With most of the population already living in poverty and 36 percent in extreme poverty, protests and riots ensued. Their poverty was made all the more unacceptable by the fact that at the time it was reported that “Venezuela has the world’s fifth largest oil reserves and exports more to the US than does Saudi Arabia” (‘Lesson from Venezuela on what to do with oil profits’ by Joan McAlpine, Glasgow Herald, 19 August 2004), and, not unnaturally, the Venezuelan people wondered why more of the oil profits were not coming their way.
In 1992, Chavez led a military coup against those in power who were selling the country to imperialism, but was quickly overthrown and spent the next two years in prison. Meanwhile, with the implementation of the ‘neo-liberal’ killer policies demanded by imperialism, the number of people living in dire poverty doubled – from 36 percent to 66 percent of the population, according to Mike Gonzalez, Head of Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow (writing in People’s Democracy in August 2004). This set the scene for Chavez to be elected President by popular acclaim in 1998. At first, he was supported by many of the old guard, for they expected that a military man like himself would follow the traditions of military rulers wherever they are to be found, i.e., to settle his fee and then carry on as before.
Chavez, however, broke the mould. He was determined to improve the situation of the poor, offering them land, education, healthcare and hope – and this notwithstanding the fact that he was a nationalist and not a communist. He was motivated by the belief that the wealth of Latin America belongs to the Latin Americans, not to foreign imperialists, and that it is Latin Americans who should profit from the exploitation of Latin Americans, not foreigners. He understood and it became increasingly clear that such a policy put him on a collision course with imperialism. Chavez, who had contacts with a variety of revolutionary groups (and it appears some underground revolutionary socialists) understood that he could only succeed to the extent he mobilised the masses against imperialism. Hence it was his priority to provide them with the basics they most need. Thus it was noted in the wake of the Iraq war in 2004 that:
“What oil there is still flowing in Iraq has gone to fund reconstruction contracts handed to a small group of US contractors, many with close links to the administration. Venezuela is the mirror opposite. More than $1.7bn (£930m) of its oil revenues a year are devoted to providing extra healthcare, housing and education to those people previously denied those basic rights … For example, 13,000 doctors have arrived from Cuba to man … new clinics.” (Op cit)
And Richard Gott, writing in the Guardian that year adds that the huge surplus oil revenues of the state-owned oil company were directed under Chavez’s leadership into “imaginative new social programmes. Innumerable projects … were established throughout the country … They combat illiteracy, provide further education for school dropouts, promote employment, supply cheap food, and extend a free medical service in the poor areas of the cities and the countryside, with the help of 10,000 Cuban doctors. Redundant oil company buildings have been commandeered to serve as the headquarters of a new university for the poor, and oil money has been diverted to set up Vive, an innovative cultural television channel that is already breaking the traditional US mould of the Latin American media”.
When it comes to mobilising the electorate, all this more than counteracted the rabidly anti-Chavez propaganda put out by the Venezuelan corporate media, owned then as it is now by a comprador bourgeoise firmly in the pay of US imperialism. Time and again, Chavez was able to mobilise the masses to use the ballot box to re-elect his party the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) and latterly the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela), bring about a new Bolivarian Constitution and even in recent years bring about a new executive institution in government, the Constituent Assembly.
The content of the Venezuelan revolution has been largely based upon a bourgeois democratic programme, a programme of land reform, of developing Venezuelan production and industry. But the implementation of such a programme has brought Venezuela into open confrontation with imperialism, the implementation of such a programme weakens the stranglehold of the IMF and World Bank, in Venezuela and the region, implementing such a programme means that the content of the Bolivarian revolution has been decidedly anti-imperialist, weakening imperialism and US imperialism in particular. Furthermore, to enact this programme it has been necessary (as previously stated) to mobilise the masses, and for this a socialist rhetoric and a radical social programme has been necessary.
One should not underestimate how much fear the seemingly innocuous expression ‘land reform’ can generate amongst imperialists (just look at Zimbabwe). The situation in Venezuela at the turn of the century was that 77 percent of farmland was owned by a mere three percent of the population. Under Chavez’s presidency, a land act was passed “which prohibits ownership of more than 5,000 hectares and allows the expropriation of unused land, of which there is rather a lot in Venezuela. The vast estates of the old aristocracy were threatened by this legislation which even by 2004 saw 5.5m acres …[having] been distributed to families who previously depended on allotments to feed their children”. (Joan McAlpine, ibid)
On the face of it, this seems to have little to do with imperialism, but the fact of the matter is that despite the fact that Venezuela “has vast tracts of fertile land”, when Chavez came to power it imported 70 percent of its food, much of it from the US. For example, the national beer company was said to depend on America for its entire supply of hops. To the extent that unused land is handed over to peasant families, this will create competition for the US agricultural multinationals which currently supply the Venezuelan market, thereby undermining what is for imperialism a nice little earner.
The major part of Venezuela’s current economic problems have been deliberately caused or exacerbated by the rich reactionaries, who have, on the one hand, been hoarding essential commodities in warehouses with a view to causing shortages (which of itself has forced up the prices of the little that has been made available), and, on the other hand, have been converting currency into dollars, forcing down the exchange rate of the peso (thereby making imported goods much more expensive). The effect of high import prices is compounded by Venezuela’s distorted economy, which is overly dependent on oil extraction and export – a legacy that the Bolivarian revolution has been struggling to uproot.
In Venezuela, the rural population has been reduced to 15 percent of the whole, although they had constituted some 60 percent as recently as 1935. At the same time, however, before Chávez began his Bolivarian revolution, 75-80 percent of Venezuela’s land was owned by 5 percent of the population, and a mere 2 percent owned 60 percent of farmland, while 60 percent of the rural population had no land at all.
A major factor driving the peasants away from the countryside was the dependence of the Venezuelan economy on oil, which provided ample foreign exchange to enable the country to pay for cheap imports of food against which the relatively backward production methods current in Venezuela could not compete. As a result, the big landowners either reduced their levels of production and dismissed their peasant workers, or they modernised, substituting machines for peasant workers. In both cases, this left large numbers of peasants deprived of work, who inevitably drifted to the towns to live in immense slums and to try to make a living as best they could.
The petrol money that had destroyed much of Venezuela’s agriculture also facilitated the import of manufactured goods so cheap as to stifle the growth of industry in Venezuela. As a result, Venezuela never had sufficient in the way of industry to absorb many of the peasants who came from the towns, who had to live from hand to mouth as best they could and were not able to adopt the life of urban wage workers.
Far from being responsible for this state of affairs, both Chávez and Maduro have been implementing policies designed to return peasants to the land (compulsorily purchasing uncultivated land and distributing it to the peasantry) and to provide employment in government-sponsored cooperatives for the urban proletariat.
One might even say that if the popular Venezuelan government has been guilty of squandering precious resources, it is the vast sums of money it has paid in compensation to the rich when purchasing their unused land. It is paid in the hope of buying social peace – a hope that has proved to be in vain.
It is a similar situation with regards to Venezuelan oil. In the early years of the Bolivarian revolution, the social programmes were funded by oil. But oil is a commodity controlled by imperialism, its very sale only possible in US dollars and through clearing houses controlled by imperialist interests. Yes, attempts are being made by Iran, Venezuela and China, to break this, and we also place great hopes in these efforts, but the fact remains that these are new developments and as yet are unable to break the stranglehold of imperialism.
Such a situation with regards to oil production was always precarious and the Chavez government recognised this. However, not only has the drop in the price of oil affected the Venezuelan economy, the measures enacted by Venezuela to nationalise oil production were never going to be enough to ensure independence from the imperialist system.
Whilst Venezuela nationalised sections of the oil industry, it did so upon the basis of the international (bourgeois) legal system, and simultaneously it passed its product (unrefined oil) onto storage facilities and refineries which were owned by the same people whom the Venezuelans had themselves expropriated. Thus Conoco Phillips is able to list revenues of $10 billion in the first quarter of 2019, nearly $700 million of which is Venezuelan oil which it held in its storage tanks in Curacao and at its refineries but which it stole at the back end of 2018 as compensation for the loss of its production facilities under Chavez. Of course, the whole affair has been conducted “legally” and under international law. The World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes saw to that when it awarded a record settlement (of $2 billion) against Maduro’s government for nationalisation under Chavez, and the imperialist hawks are now circling over Citgo Petroleum, a Venezuelan owned refiner based in the USA. The imperialists hope to strip this prize asset and pay off those outstanding debts which it says Venezuela owes for nationalisation. Those who have a spare few million would do well to bet on these creditors who are sure to announce good Q1 returns next year when their business is done.
Such is the operation of international law, a term often used to give the impression that there stands some justice above all private interests, some equality amongst nations. But as J V Stalin pointed out, the only international law recognised by imperialism is the jungle law of capitalism – the strong take from the weak. Though Venezuela took control of many assets from US oil giant Conoco Phillips, the ability to produce oil is only one facet of the process. That oil needs to be stored, to be processed, to be refined. Unfortunately for Venezuela, having taken over production they were still reliant upon the monopolies to realise the sale of their commodity on the market. Such a situation brings to mind the advice of Stalin to business executives in 1931, in which he says of old Russia,
“One feature of the history of old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongol khans. She was beaten by the Turkish beys. She was beaten by the Swedish feudal lords. She was beaten by the Polish and Lithuanian gentry. She was beaten by the British and French capitalists. She was beaten by the Japanese barons. All beat her — because of her backwardness, because of her military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, agricultural backwardness. They beat her because it was profitable and could be done with impunity. You remember the words of the pre-revolutionary poet: “You are poor and abundant, mighty and impotent, Mother Russia.” 4 Those gentlemen were quite familiar with the verses of the old poet. They beat her, saying: “You are abundant,” so one can enrich oneself at your expense. They beat her, saying: “You are poor and impotent,” so you can be beaten and plundered with impunity. Such is the law of the exploiters — to beat the backward and the weak. It is the jungle law of capitalism. You are backward, you are weak — therefore you are wrong; hence you can be beaten and enslaved. You are mighty — therefore you are right; hence we must be wary of you.”
Such was the appraisal of the leader of the Soviet Union towards the situation Soviet Russian found itself in during 1931. And the USSR, like Venezuela, was the target of imperialist aggression, meddling, sabotage and wrecking. What conclusion did Stalin and the Bolsheviks draw? They said,
“… we must no longer lag behind.
In the past we had no fatherland, nor could we have had one. But now that we have overthrown capitalism and power is in our hands, in the hands of the people, we have a fatherland, and we will uphold its independence. Do you want our socialist fatherland to be beaten and to lose its independence? If you do not want this, you must put an end to its backwardness in the shortest possible time and develop a genuine Bolshevik tempo in building up its socialist economy. There is no other way. That is why Lenin said on the eve of the October Revolution: “Either perish, or overtake and outstrip the advanced capitalist countries.”
We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall go under.”
Such a conclusion was shown by history to have been very sound. Not only did the Soviets accomplish the building up of Soviet industry, they prepared their country for war and won in the fiercest of battles against an enemy everybody thought far superior. Is Venezuela in the same situation? Sadly it is not. In Venezuela the enemies of the revolution not only engage in convert wrecking and sabotage, price fixing and hoarding of food, they also operate openly.
Venezuela has long been held out by revisionists and Trotskyites as being the supreme proof that socialism could be brought into existence peacefully through the ballot box, but Venezuela’s situation proves that this is simply not true. Any government that stands up against the interests of imperialism is liable to be subjected to extreme violence unless, having been ruthlessly undermined by sanctions and/or internal sabotage, it departs the scene willingly, perhaps through the ballot box. In the present circumstances of imperialist world domination and overwhelming financial power and fire power, peaceful proletarian takeover is out of the question. The unsuccessful coup attempt in 2002 has been followed by acts of open economic war and sabotage, not least the strike by oil workers orchestrated in 2003, the currency manipulation, power cuts of recent years and the food hoarding. Even more flagrantly US imperialism supported by its flunkeys across the world has openly attempted further military coups, including, but not limited to the plot discovered in the air force in 2015, the attempt on Maduro’s life in 2018, and the farcical last-ditch attempt by Guaido to launch an uprising on Tuesday last having appointed himself President in January with the full backing of the USA and the EU.
The way ahead
The fact that economic power is still in the hands of a wealthy élite is a problem that urgently requires attention in Venezuela, while at the same time imperialism, which backs the wealthy élite who would otherwise be much easier to dispatch, is the most dangerous enemy. Trump’s threats have made this very clear, and as a result of them, steps are being taken to organise the general population into militias capable of defending the country against invasion.
What also needs to be recognised, however, is that the wild swings in the world price of oil demonstrate as best as anything can that capitalism is an irrational system prone to devastating crises in which it is the poor who suffer most. Venezuela needs not only to nationalise all important means of production and exchange but also to substitute production for the benefit of the people in accordance with conscious economic planning for the present system of production for profit. It needs to abolish wage slavery. To try to control the capitalist system, even when those efforts are directed towards improving the conditions of the working people, is like riding a bucking bronco. Skilled riders can stay on much longer than the unskilled, but sooner or later all will be thrown unceremoniously to the ground. Without the eradication of the capitalist system of production, it is impossible to guarantee full employment to all workers, or to avoid periodic crises that sweep away all gains that may have been made – nor is it possible to prevent imperialism from intervening to advance loans to the state in times of economic difficulty, which then become instruments of subjecting the debtor to the imperialists’ exploitative will.
We wish the Venezuelan people and their government every success in the difficult enterprise on which they are embarked and turn now to the comrades assembled here today to discuss the challenges faced by Venezuela in the context provided by comrades in this morning’s session on the question of the state and revolution.