Correspondence on Chavez: The need to defend class positions
I read with much interest your debate with EK on the question of Che, national liberation, Stalinism etc. This seems to me to be a crucial question at the moment particularly amongst leftists and from what I see, in Latin America with the rise of left-leaning governments in Venezuela etc. From what I gather from friends who have travelled in Latin America, the iconography of Che is as prevalent as ever and is seen as a symbol of revolution, or change... sometimes in a quasi-religious sense. Now my thoughts on the "Che" question (him as a symbol for the whole question of Stalinism in Latin America) are basically the same as yours. I'm no expert but when I read the biography of Che it was obvious that their "revolution" was parachuted in by a minority of bourgeoisie nationalists (Castro). The rest of Che's career in the Congo and Bolivia seems to be explained by the term "parachuting" as well. This is Stalinism for sure. However, the question becomes one that has often arisen when I consider the positions of the ICC. The positions of the ICC seem to me to be "trenchant" - vigorous in their defence of internationalist positions, which are essentially my positions. But yours is a tiny fraction with little support among the proletariat. The proletariat may be becoming more combative... but not yet in a revolutionary direction. In the absence of this, I suspect a lot of people of the "left", socialist, communist or even anarchist look around for something, anything that is remotely similar to their positions. So, we turn to Che, Cuba, Chavez, Venezuela etc. We see US imperialism being fought... and we can't help but approve. We see vast poverty of the masses and some attempts to address them (Venezuela). We see the masses in action (Venezuela), we see workers talking about "workers control". In this situation it is very tempting to have a sneaking regard for positions historically alien to us. "Someone is fighting back", would be the refrain I suppose. Further, I was looking at a speech by the Trotskyist Alan Woods on the web (Hands off Venezuela) - he quotes or paraphrases Lenin (apparently) "those of you who wish to see a pure workers revolution will never see one." Presumably he means that revolutions always begin as complex affairs with the mobilization of a variety of classes and class interests etc. So his Trotskyite organisation takes the official stance of "critical support" of Chavezism - looking for the trends that might drive it forward. I suppose you could take a similar stance to the whole phenomenon of the Stalinist left in Latin America, to Che and all the rest? But the ICC does not do this. They are probably right in their "trenchant" position. But what concerns me is two fold, practical and theoretical: 1. That communist internationalists will forever be a tiny minority with no effective voice because they alienate those who might otherwise by sympathetic. In their hostility to all movements that are not proletarian internationalist they may get left behind in their theoretical purity? 2. That to stick rigidly to a vision of revolution from 1917 (etc.) and to assess all movements by that standard has the danger of verging into idealism - or even Platonism: the view that there is a perfect idea of revolutionary path to which reality must adjust itself. Thus, the real situation of complexity, for example in Venezuela, becomes dismissed out of hand as not conforming to the Platonic "internationalist positions"?
.... I look forward to your in-depth reply as always. These thought of mine lack coherence - but somewhere in there is something that approximates to a critique of your method. Good luck and I hope you appreciate that these comments emerge from a sympathiser looking to be involved in supportive and constructive debate!
Thank you for your letter. In our response we hope to deal with some of the questions and issues you raise. First of all we are glad you agree with us on the role and nature of Che Guevara, as you say in your letter “… the iconography of Che is as prevalent as ever and is seen as a symbol of revolution, or change... sometimes in a quasi-religious sense”. He has been made into the official poster boy for all things relating to ‘revolution’ and not a few things relating to style and fashion! We don’t call Che and his coterie Stalinist just because they were ‘parachuting in’, but also because of the fact that very quickly they aligned themselves with the imperialism of the USSR. This is the reality behind ‘national liberation’ and ‘anti-imperialism’.
Despite your agreements you say that “..But yours is a tiny fraction with little support among the proletariat. The proletariat may be becoming more combative... but not yet in a revolutionary direction. In the absence of this, I suspect a lot of people of the “left”, socialist, communist or even anarchist look around for something, anything that is remotely similar to their positions. So, we turn to Che, Cuba, Chavez, Venezuela etc. We see US imperialism being fought... and we can’t help but approve. We see vast poverty of the masses and some attempts to address them (Venezuela).” In essence you seem to be saying that although we have a correct position, the fact that most people aren’t aware of it means that there has to be some ‘in-between’ action, until there is movement in a revolutionary direction. Of course, we don’t espouse the vision of ‘revolution or nothing’ in the sense of deriding everything that is one fraction less than revolutionary. We support workers’ struggles and movements. It has often been said, not least by us, that a class which is unable to defend itself economically and politically is not a class which will make a revolution.
You ask in your letter: “1. That communist internationalists will forever be a tiny minority with no effective voice because they alienate those who might otherwise by sympathetic. In their hostility to all movements that are not proletarian internationalist they may get left behind in their theoretical purity? 2. That to stick rigidly to a vision of revolution from 1917 (etc.) and to assess all movements by that standard has the danger of verging into idealism - or even Platonism: the view that there is a perfect idea of revolutionary path to which reality must adjust itself. Thus, the real situation of complexity, for example in Venezuela, becomes dismissed out of hand as not conforming to the Platonic ‘internationalist positions’?”
It is true today that there are not the mass workers’ parties of the past. The counter-revolution combined with the betrayal of the mass parties and organisations of the working class (Social Democracy, unions etc.) dealt heavy blows to the consciousness of the masses. This is also compounded by the weight of bourgeois ideology that teaches us that there is no alternative to capitalism and the people who argue and militate for such a thing are ‘loonies’ or ‘crazy’ or, indeed, a ‘tiny cult’. We are a long way from the days when militants were known amongst the class, when there was a daily press and mass meetings... And yet, despite all of that, the working class on a worldwide scale has not been defeated. Indeed since 2003 there has been a slow resurgence of struggles world wide, often small in scale, but on significant political questions.
The need to be clear
Being a ‘tiny minority’ in itself isn’t the crucial question, because being a revolutionary inherently means being in a minority against the mainstream of society and bourgeois ideology. If the main concern of revolutionaries was to be ‘with the masses’ then why not just join one of the Social Democratic parties, or a big union? In reality the main question is whether one defends clear positions that correspond to the needs of the working class struggle, even when they fly in the face of majority opinion. Even in a period of downturn in the class struggle, it’s important to see the long-term perspective. For example after the collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989 there followed a period of huge reflux in consciousness, reflected in the low level of struggle throughout the 1990s. The bourgeoisie was singing from the rooftops about the ‘death of communism’ and the triumph of capitalism. In contrast, the ICC showed that we had entered a new period in imperialist relations, a period of ‘each against all’ which would lead to ever greater conflicts. What has been the reality? Since that time we have had two wars in the Gulf, near genocide in Rwanda and Congo, the proliferation of nuclear technology to some of the most unstable regions of the world (India, Pakistan, North Korea), spectacular economic collapses (Argentina) as well as generalised economic downturns, and the ‘war on terror’ – when it will end, no one knows
However, it was our understanding that the working class hadn’t been historically, definitively defeated. Despite everything, there has also been a resurgence of interest in the positions of the communist left, with new contacts (individuals and groups) coming forward from all over the globe. That’s not to say they all have identical positions to the ICC, but there is a minimum criteria of the defence of proletarian internationalism, and we have been able to engage at a number of levels. What is most significant is the impulse pushing forward this political maturation – the stagnation of the economy, ecological crisis, war.... In general we can say that those parts of the working class which follow populist movements tend to end up demoralised and burnt out. There are legions of combative workers who have been recuperated by the left wing of capital and thus neutralised.
Struggle between classes
On your second point, undoubtedly, all large scale struggles involve complexities; the fact that there are workers of different sectors, of different levels of political consciousness and organisation, or who have been subject to different influences. The question to ask when judging a class based movement is what direction are the different classes going, what is the class dynamic? Even in a situation where there are many confusions, where the first demands are not necessarily those coinciding with the interests of the workers (Russia 1905, Poland 1980 to give two examples) things can develop very rapidly in a particular direction. One of the hallmarks of the “movement towards a revolutionary direction” is that the working class is increasingly taking direct control of its own struggles, that it is prying away from the grip of the unions and other bourgeois factions (leftists etc.). The working class will have to draw in other factions and classes (e.g. the peasantry) behind its struggles and demands – which is certainly not the same as saying we should support Chavez because he says he is doing something for the poor or fighting US imperialism. It’s against these historical indicators that we have to measure reality, not some “Platonic ideal” of a perfect uprising, as you say in your letter.
You seem to pose the situation in Venezuela as an example of this ‘in between’ situation – so the question is, what is the reality of Chavism? Does the rule of Chavez present an opportunity for the working class to develop its struggles, its self identity and collective strength? Is the specific fight against ‘US imperialism’ a workers’ struggle? We would say loudly: no! There is nothing new in the rule of Chavez – he is in the best traditions of state capitalism. The fact that he has taken control of the country and the economy (nationalising industries etc.) does not mean he has escaped the iron laws of capitalism. He is the head of the capitalist state and so is tasked with defending the national capital. He must still ensure that all of the nationalised industries generate profit – and where economic activity is interrupted say, for example, by workers’ struggles, he has responded the same way as all bourgeoisies all over the world, with an iron fist. A recent example has been the struggle of the oil workers (see our article online at: http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/2007/dec/ven-oil-struggles ). History shows us, time and time again, the working class will always be faced by the bourgeois state in all its various guises and by individuals and factions who claim to represent the interests of the working class. But the praxis of the working class, whose highest point was in Russia in 1917, shows the dangers of believing that the capitalist state can be taken over and used for furthering the interests of revolution…