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Australian ISO's response to New Zealand SW on Venezuela

The Socialist Worker group in New Zealand sent out a call for a broad discussion about the Venezuelan Revolution both within and outside the International Socialist Tendency. In response there has been a few other items posted to their blog -- one from the British SWP and another from a Dutch socialist. Today on their Unity blog the NZ SW group has published a response from the Australian IST affiliate , the Internationl Socialist Organisation.

The ISO disagrees with NZ SW's assessment and writes:
One of most important lessons we can learn from two centuries of working class struggle is the need for sharp intellectual clarity on questions such as the revolutionary role of the working class, reform or revolution, the role of capitalist state, and the need for a revolutionary party. Your May Day statement obfuscates these critical issues.Our starting point needs to be socialism from below—the revolutionary activity of the working class and the application of Marxist ideas to aid that struggle. Unfortunately, and no matter what Chavez himself may say or do, his government remains held back by capitalist relations both economically and politically. The only way out of this impasse is for the further development of mass struggle from below, with a crucial role for the working class in developing democratic organs capable of challenging state power. One role of socialists is to prioritise the development of such a strategy in comradely collaboration with all supporters of revolution in Latin America. Unfortunately your document does not mention such an orientation.
Read full text here.

9 Com:

AN | June 20, 2007

This question of "socialism from below" is I think fundamental, and of course is something that the IST shares in common with the British AWL and its co-thinkers.

It is the abstract nature of a distinction between above and below that fails to relate to actual historical developments, and the way that different class interects can be refelected in institutions from "above" as well as from "below".

Dave Riley | June 20, 2007

You're right Andy. The world is more complex than the "above" vs "below" formula and I get pretty confused when it is applied to Venezuela because it lends itself to some very crude and very sectarian interpretations, say, in the hands of the US ISO.

But then the NZ SW uses the same terminology in the context of Venezuela.

So I guess it flexes.

Peter Boyle | June 20, 2007

But isn't this just an abstract justification for the sectarian idea that the IST (in this case, though it could apply to a range of mini "internationals")holds the only correct revolutionary program and therefore a "real" revolution cannot take place without being led by a group with the said "correct" program? So there is no serious examination and analysis of the actual revolution because it is defined, a priori, as a logical impossibility. Or is this too harsh?

Dave Riley | June 20, 2007

In my estimation the "rev from below" coda has been promoted in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union as prior to that the primary marker was "Neither Moscow nor Washington but International Socialism" -- a state capitalist thing. So the excuse for separatism -- for a self contained and patented international -- has shifted from one primary thing to something else.

I have to admit that I cannot comprehend the' revolution from below' thesis much at all because it appears to me to be a sort of libertarian and spontaneist version of the way events are supposed to proceed in a set scenario.(And if you check out the Dutch commentary on the NZSW call -- it fosters a very dark history lesson I feel.One in that particular telling completely misses the Vietnamese struggle for liberation.)

It seems to me, therefore, that the supposed problem with Venezuela is Hugo et al -- as these people are not supposed to play the role they are playing from the location they are in.

But hey:Fact.Fact.

There's always the handy Bonapartist interpretation to fall back on too. But lets' say, Venezuela 2007 is a very long way from the politics of November 9, 1799.

Peter Boyle | June 20, 2007

What makes me think that "revolution from below" is being used as an excuse here is that the ISO and the Dutch ISTer are actually impatient with the pace of the Venezuelan revolution - which like all real revolutions in our epoch can ONLY progress through mass movement. The Venezuelan revolution is unfolding as a series of revolutionary initiatives/leadership from the Chavistas ("from above" if you like) unleashing wave after wave of popular pressure (from "below" if you like to put it this way) around demands that increasingly cut into the rights of imperialist and large local capitalists.

This is a revolution that moves forward with the masses and through mass action. It is really strange to see supposed champions of "revolution from below" displaying their impatience and blindness to the fact that this is a revolution being made from below. The leadership provided by the Chavistas (there isn't another tendency providing effective revolutionary leadership there) has demonstrably an enabling and empowering effect on a mass movement that has been constructed from among the ruins of many failed political movements, including the old workers' movement in Venezuela. Chavista leadership helps the masses fix on the next target then helps them self-organise to go onto the next offensive.

This is no revolution made from some recipe book, nor on the basis of masses ever-ready to make a social revolution. There was mass rejection of failed neo-liberalism but also mass disorganisation, depoliticisation and disunity. The revolutionary credentials of the Chavista leadership is not their pre-existing adherence to some allegedly perfect and correct paper program but their real leadership of the masses.

This is probably how it is going to be like in all revolutions in the 21st century.

Stuart Munckton | June 20, 2007

I think Peter gets to the heart of the matter about sectarianism. It is only too harsh to acknowledge this if it is understood in too narrow or crude a way.

That is, the position defended by Alex Calinicos and the Australian ISO is not the same as, for instance, the much more extreme sectarianism of the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), who have a clearer stance of opposition towards the Chavez government. There is much about how the IST has related to Venezuela that is positive, they haven't simply slammed it or refused to offer support against the attacks from imperialism. It is easy get carried away and fail to recognise this. I think Dave got caught out with that over the RCTV angle, with the response of the UK SWP countering his assumptions about their position. So this is a discussion among comrades who have taken a positive approach to the gains, and see the need to defend the both the gains and the government, although the differences over our approach remain real and very significant - hence the debate.

There is much that can, and should be, be said about what is wrong with the analysis put forward by the ISO and Calinicos, but at its essence it represents a sectarian stance towards the actual motion of the class struggle. And whatever else is right or wrong about the position put forward by NZ Socialist Worker (and it isn't exactly the same as the analysis of the DSP, which I belong to) it is ultimately THIS that they are challenging. The NZ comrades have put forward a position that recognises and seeks to proceed from reality as it exists, not an abstract conception of how reality SHOULD exist, which becomes the benchmark by which to judge reality.

The Calinocos/ISO position says, well support the gains the advances BUT the most important thing is all the problems and contradictions. The NZ comrades have turned this on its head and said, we recognise the limitations and contradictions BUT the most important thing is the advances for the class struggle, that we recognise, support and seek to relate to this.

This is regardless of another, although important, discussion which is how far the revolutionary movement has gone in Venezuela in terms of overthrowing the capitalist state and taking concrete anti-capitalist moves. This is important, and there are real differences over this, but it doesn't alter the fundamental orientation needed towards the revolutionary movement.

From what I can see, the NZ Socialist Worker has sought to proceed from the reality of the socialist revolution in Venezuela, not from an abstract measurement of a socialist revolution that demands any revolution has to score enough points on a scorecard to be recognised.

Sectarianism is not simply saying you don't like those people over there. AWL does that with Chavez, they are quite clear that they don't like or his government much at all. However, the Calinicos position doesn't. The official take of the IST has been to say, yes they DO like Chavez, he is an inspiring figure, and the pro-people policies of his government should be supported.

But the position put forward by Calinicos and the ISO are still at heart sectarian, because sectarianism means setting yourself against the movement of the class. The IST position still seeks to counter what it sees as its unique position, called "socialism from below", and counterposes it the mass revolutionary movement in Venezuela, as it actually exists with all of its existing limitations and contradictions.

To me this is the key difference. The Calinicos line raises very real problems and contradictions, ones that are widely recognised in Venezuela including by Chavez, but then sets the process as it currently exists in stone. It is assumed these contradictions can not be resolved in a positive way. So Calinicos quotes Chris Harman saying the reason why the new party won't work is because it has three contradictory currents in it. This suggests that the new party will suffer instability and a struggle will occur over its nature. Why is this going to automatically resolve itself in the negative? Won't this be the product of struggle? And shouldn't we throw ourselves in to this struggle by relating in a positive fashion to it?

From what I can see, this is what the NZ comrades are trying to do. They are not standing on the sidelines pointing out why this process is bound to fail, they recognises the problems and dangers but put upfront that socialists understand the significance of this battle and are in solidarity with it. Yes, the bureaucrats might end up in control of the PSUV, but anyone with two eyes can see that there is enormous enthusiasm from the ranks for this party - five million members shows how keen the rank and file of the revolutionary movement - that is the radicalising working class, as it actually exists - see this new party as a weapon to advance the revolution. This gives an enormous impetus to the struggle to make the PSUV a genuinely revolutionary party. It gives great hope that the contradictions within the party can be resolves in favour of the working class and the revolution.

But Callinicos treats it as though the issue is already resolved against the revolution simply because there are contradictory forces are at work. It may be a nice idea, but it wont work, therefore maybe revolutionaries should join it "for tactical reasons" but don't have any illusions. This position sets you up AGAINST the actual struggle within the revolutionary process, leaving those who joined this doom struggle for tactical reasons at the very best going through the motions of a struggle you know you will lose in order not to be completely isolated from the class.

For all the talk of "socialism from below" it actually reflects a very negative view of the ability of working people "from below" to win this struggle. The new party seems tainted by its contradictions, and most of all tainted because Chavez has called for it. The role of Chavez is another factor predetermined. It seems it is impossible for him to play an important leadership role in making the socialist revolution. This seems to come down to a moral judgement of Chavez. He is disqualified from helping lead a socialist revolution by the very fact he was elected president overseeing a capitalist state and a capitalist economy he is therefore ruled ineligible from playing a positive leadership role in advancing the socialits revolution and struggle for workers power.

Here we face the same problem of taking a contradiction that leads to a struggle, and in advance assuming it must be resolved in the negative. To have a president at the head of a mass movement pushing ever more in an anti-capitalist direction, that is in the midst of struggle to create a revolutionary state and destroying the old state (leaving aside the discussion about how far this has gone) and urging working people on towards socialism.

Essentially, through the struggle, you have had a government arise that is independent of the bourgeois forces that dominate the economy and still a fair part of the state apparatus. This is not sustainable, but is it really ruled out in advance that it this contradiction about the role of Chavez and the government he leads can only be resolved in the negative, with Chavez either turning on the working class or else being overthrown by counterrevolution?

In fact both the Comintern in 1922 and Leon Trotsky in the Transitional Program (which Chavez urged Venezuelan people to go and read recently on his nationally televised program) raised the concept of a "workers and farmers government", that is a government independent of the bourgeoisie but which still rests on a capitalist state. Different forms of such a government were conceived of, including one based directly on communist leadership. Obviously, such a situation is not stable and can only be transitional to a workers state the reestablishment of bourgeois control over the government. Such a government has to move to work to dismantle the bourgeoisie state and replace it with a revolutionary one.

Such a thing can only be achieved by the working people themselves, the role of such a government is to encourage and help lead this process. There is a fair chunk of evidence that this is the course Chavez is on at the moment and important gains are being made, but lets leave that aside and ask whether such a thing is even possible according to the approach taken by Callinicos/ISO? Such a course of action appears to be written out as not applicable.

So yes, the struggle has to be "from below", that is it can not be decreed by Chavez or anyone else but must be made on the ground by the working people themselves. But we all acknowledge that leadership is important and here we get to the nub of the question. Chavez appears to be ruled ineligible from being a central part of that leadership. He is "stained" by having gotten himself elected into the office of president.

It would be much cleaner, of course, if the Venezuelan revolution has not gone through and made use of the bourgeois electoralism at all. If the workers had simply risen up, formed soviets and smashed the bourgeois state in one fell swoop back in 1999. But they didn't. The struggle to resolve the needs of the working people and their allies placed Hugo Chavez in Miraflores palace on a platform to achieve change, the subsequent struggle against the implementation of the platform has created a massive class struggle, this has radicalised both the impoverished mass and Chavez, pushed the process forward, made some important gains both social and political and placed the question of socialist revolution immediately on the cards.

That is the reality of the Venezuelan revolution. The revolution has reached this point through a course determined by the Venezuelan reality, regardless of whether or not this was the most ideal way for it to go.

The real question is not about "socialism from below" at all. This is really a tautology anyway. Socialism involves the fundamental transformation of social relations on a massive scale, it can only be made by the working class. You cannot create socialism except "from below" (ie: made by the working class). It is actually about the fact that we all recognise that revolutions require revolutionary leadership and the Callinicos line doesn't recognise the existing revolutionary leadership as a revolutionary leadership.

Of course, this revolutionary leadership is very much a work in progress. There is the leadership on a national level centred in the figure of Chavez. That so much authority is vested in one individual is a weakness, but again there is no point complaining because reality is not perfect. There is also the emerging revolutionary grass roots leaderships in communities and workplaces. Both are seeking to push the process forward and have been blocked to varying degrees by bureaucracy that controls much of the state apparatus. The new party is an attempt to overcome this problem, to deepen and strengthen the grass roots leadership that is arising to break down the road blocks. Whether this can happen, whether the broad based mass revolutionary leadership required to decisively take the revolution forward will be created or not, will be the product of struggle.

The problem seems to be that the Callinicos position rules out in advance the possibility of the creation of a revolutionary leadership through such a process, and deny the important gains already made along this line. It isn’t how the IST have always said it should happen, so rather than conclude maybe there is a need to broaden the IST's understanding of how the possible ways a revolution can occur and the different roads to solve the problem of revolutionary leadership the class struggle might throw up, the problem is concluded to be with the Venezuelan revolution. Chavez simply can't be a revolutionary leader, and the revolution simply can't occur in such a way.

This is why you can have generally positive attitude to the gains of the revolution, as the IST does. You can defend it against attack, as the UK SWP did in the pages of their press against the media onslaught over the RCTV decision, an article that is hard to fault. But if you acknowledge that there is a socialist revolution and that Chavez is attempting to lead it, and if you support the struggle for a revolutionary party to take it forward that is underway — as the NZ comrades have done — then you challenge something much more fundamental.

This is obvious from the way the discussion has explicitly raised the question of IST organisation. The New Zealand comrades have pointed out the obvious, which is when discussing how socialists should relate to each other internationally, you must take into account and seek to relate those currently leading a socialist revolution. They take this approach despite acknowledging the unfinished nature of the struggle for power, and despite the weaknesses, such as in the organised workers movement.

The Callinicos line, on the other hand, seeks to use these things as an excuse not to proceed from such a position. It doesn't mean, as Callinicos implies, that this means creating a new "international centre" in Caracas. It doesn't mean denying the steps still to be taken and the potential for the process to be derailed. It means that you relate to this struggle with open arms, and seek to collaborate with and learn from the comrades who are leading it, many of whom come from a wide variety of traditions and reflect, within the revolutionary process, various positions.

Dave Riley | June 20, 2007

Yeah. You're right, Stuart, I was confused about the SWP approach to RCTV as I had been biased by reading some of their early material published on Venezuela (and not keeping up) which I thought was more critical of the process than is the case now.

As a matter of interest, the boisterous and strident Dave Osler(exSWP?) has a post and comment thread on the NZSW stuff in May here

Stuart Munckton | June 20, 2007

Hi Dave, I tried to click the link in your last comment but it didn't work. I don't know if the problem is with the link or the site.

But some more thoughts on the question of "socialism from below". I said in my last comment that I thought it was a tautology, but I think there is even more to the question that that.

I think taking the term "from below", which is perfectly useful and correct in the right context, and raising it up as THE defining concept brings with it the danger of confusing what is essential, which is the question of CLASS. This where the abstract concepts of "above" or "below" in and of themselves start to become a little meaningless because they don't specify the question of class. You could argue that the opposition student protests were "from below", given they represented interests that don't have control of the government, but that doesn't tell what class interests were at work when these spoilt brats threw a public tantrum.

It runs the risk of confusing the essential question, which is not "above" or "below" in and of itself, but what advances the self organisation of working people.

If, as a rank and file member of a trade union, you give a brilliant speech that helps elucidate the nature of the system and help both lay bare the need for and inspire your fellow workers to struggle to organise themselves, recognising that the working class is the revolutionary class and only by organising itself can change be won, then surely that is a very good thing.

Does this stop being a good thing if, when making a speech which has this impact - and, okay we all know one speech isn't good enough, but rather over a period of time you prove yourself a useful agitator to this end - if, while doing this, you hold an official union position? Are you tainted by this position? Why, if the end result is an increase in the self organisation of workers?

And, what then, if you play this role from the position of president of the country? Is it somehow worth less than if you were a rank and file member of the union? Even though, as president, your hearing is amplified by such a large degree? Is this all just tainted by being from "above"?

I think we need to strip it down to the question of class. The only class that can carry out a socialist revolution is the working class, in combination with allies among urban and rural poor etc. Therefore, we must support every action which works to increase the level of organisation, confidence in its own power, and consciousness of its position in society of the working class. The working people have to govern in order for far reaching social change to be affected, and we know, for this to last, not just in one country. And we oppose the things that work to hold this back.

This is the CLASS criterior we have to judge the role of actions, individuals, organisations etc by. In this sense, we are talking about "socialism from below". But the class content is more important than the concept of "from below" versus "from above". Explained outside the difficult struggle for the self organisation of the working class, conscious of itself as a class, to destroy the old order, these terms can help confuse the class nature of the struggle and even impart an abstract moralism that departs from the practical question of what advances or holds back the struggle.

That struggle can only be resolved through the self activity of the working class - through working class involvement en masse in struggle. But having advanced this struggle, why turn your backs on its gains when, for instance you have successfully liberated the position of president, or the government more broadly, from the hold of the bourgeoisie, simply because you have a schema that says this is "from above"?

I think Peter captures the dynamic of "from below" and "from above" in the Venezuelan context well in his last comment. They both are serving to advance each other in Venezuela, and I think the type of line put forward by Callinicos only looks at one side of this dynamic, the bit from "below", without seeing how this is an intrinsic part of a whole and can't be separated out from it. You can’t understand the growing radicalisation and pressure "from below" without understand how it intersects with, is influenced by and influences in turn the moves "from above", from sectors like the government that have been liberated from the direct control of the bourgeoisie.

This is the key dynamic driving forward the Venezuelan revolution today. The Callinicos line only sees one part of it, and as such strips that part of its actual strength. It also means the Callinicos line takes a hostile approach to the push for a united party, which aims to strengthen this dynamic and take it to a whole other level.

Dave Riley | June 21, 2007

Osler blog post here

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