Re: ISO reponse to NZ SW on Venezuela
- There is some discussion happening at the Leftclick blog over this.
In one post, Peter Boyle wrote:
"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?"
This is my thoughts. I orignally just meant to make brief comments but
got carried away as I often do. This doesn't deal with many important
questions, such as trying to figure out how far has the revolution
come, state power, the concrete role of Chavez and a lot of other
things already thrown up by contributions to this debate, but just the
question of sectarianism.
I think Peter gets to the heart of the matter. It is only too harsh 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 how
to approach the revolution that remain real and very significant -
hence the debate.
There is much that can, and should, be said about what is wrong with
the analysis put forward by the ISO and Callinicos, 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 Callinocos/ISO position says, we recongise 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.
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 him or his government much at all. However, the Callinicos
position doesn't say this. 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 and defended.
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 take 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 Callinicos 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 Callinicos quotes Chris Harman
saying the reason why the new party won't work is because it has three
contradictory currents in it. Well, 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, making him ineligible from playing a
positive leadership role in advancing the socialist 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 is a big gain in and of itself
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 set out in advance that this contradiction can ONLY
be resolved in the negative, with Chavez either turning on the working
class or else being overthrown by counterrevolution?
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 or else 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? Regardless of
whether or not we think Chavez is doing it, is it POSSIBLE for him to
do it? Such a course of action appears to be written out as not
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
It would be much cleaner, of course, if the Venezuelan revolution had
not gone 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 opened the road to
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. Unfortunately our class appears incapable of walking in
straight line to get to the destination it needs to as quickly as
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 genuinely mass
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
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.
- I put this in the ocmments section at the Leftclicksblog post on ISO
response to NZ SW
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
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
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.
* Peter Boyle had written:
"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