When Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez was invited to visit London by Ken Livingstone it was inevitable that it would be used by both Left and Right in capitalism’s political circus. The Right accused him of authoritarianism, sponsoring terrorism, anti-Semitism, repressing and intimidating the media, supporting Iran’s bid for nuclear weapons and, in the words of a Daily Mail (15/5/6) article (headlined “Hugo Chavez helps drug barons, backs the Taliban, jails his enemies . . . and hates the middle class…”) of having “personal control of the executive, the judiciary, armed forces, education and the oil industry”. Meanwhile the Left listed the reforms in healthcare, education and literacy, praised Chávez as ‘inspiring’, ‘good news’ etc, cited Venezuela as an example for all those who support, in Livingstone’s words, “progress, justice and democracy” and reminded us of US sympathy for the 2002 attempted coup against Chávez.
In reality, Chávez’s “socialism for the 21st century” is a form of state capitalism appropriate for capitalism in its current stage of decay. The experience for the working class in Venezuela is the same grind of exploitation that the working class suffers everywhere, except its president says “we are participating in a revolution”. This year Chávez has increased defence spending by 31%, buying military helicopters, boats, fighter planes, while importing 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles by the end of 2006. Anywhere else this would be heavily criticised by the Left, but say it’s for defence against the US and there’s silence.
Away from Venezuela the rhetoric of Chávez is used to feed the false debate between Right and Left. When the Telegraph, Mail, and Express warn of a ‘revolutionary firebrand’ and the leftists welcome a breath of fresh air, the trap is set. For those who promote the idea that a ‘heroic leader’ might, in John Pilger’s words, be “using oil revenues to liberate the poor”, the role of the working class is just as an army of extras behind a faction of the ruling class.
Lies and misrepresentation are widespread on both Right and Left. But while the Right tends to be fairly crude (Donald Rumsfeld likening Chávez to Hitler, although, to be fair, Chávez has called Bush a donkey, dumbass, drunk and, er, like Hitler) the Left uses language to draw in people who are beginning to question the nature of capitalist society. In Workers Power (March 2006) you can read of “a situation with elements of dual power in Venezuela, where the local bourgeoisie does not hold undivided power, and the masses are mobilised and partially armed.” At present this corresponds to no sort of reality.
The ‘local bourgeoisie’, with Chávez at its heart, dominates Venezuelan society and the ‘masses’ are currently only ‘mobilised’ behind their exploiters. Workers Power has to create its fiction to justify its support for the current regime. Interestingly the Mail’s assertion that “Chavez himself is actually more like Juan and Eva Peron of Argentina in his populism” has more of an element of truth in it. There is a long tradition of strong figures from both Right and Left dominating the politics of various Latin American countries. Chávez is just the latest in line: he has a master’s degree in military science, he served in a counter-insurgency battalion reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, he taught at the Military Academy and organised a failed military coup in 1992. He combines a traditional background with left-wing rhetoric.
In London Chávez said at one point “We have to take up what Rosa Luxemburg said – the choice is socialism or barbarism”. He and his leftist groupies are clearly on the side of barbarism, standing against the working class that is the only possible force for socialism.