The most important battle taking place in Venezuela today is not between Hugo Chavez and the right wing opposition. It is within the Bolivarian movement itself.
The movement has two souls. The first reflects a series of explosions of struggle from below. It reflects a desire to change society from below.
The second soul finds its expression in the parties, politicians and functionaries that have jumped on the Chavez bandwagon.
It stands for gradual change, within strict limits, handed down from above to a grateful but passive population.
This battle forms the context for Chavez’s announcement of the formation of a new unified socialist party. Chavez said the party should be built from below. It could not be “the sum of the old faces”, he argued.
The proposal reflects the frustration Chavez feels at the slow progress towards his goal of “a socialism of the 21st century”.
His frustration is not misplaced. Despite increased social spending, Venezuela remains a capitalist society. It has a state-run capitalist sector, alongside the private sector.
Both sectors are booming as a result of huge oil revenues. Both rest on the exploitation of Venezuelan workers.
The state machine – not simply the ministers, but the civil service, police, army and judiciary – still exists to ensure the smooth working of Venezuelan capitalism.
Different sections of the state push in different directions – the labour minister calls for workers’ participation in nationalised companies, the finance minister reassures capitalists.
Often the state machine sabotages progressive measures.
For Venezuela to move decisively towards socialism, three things are needed.
First, the old state machine must be broken and replaced by a workers’ state – built from networks of activists in neighbourhoods and workplaces.
Second, those at the bottom of society must take control of industry, including the key oil industry, and run it themselves.
When Venezuelan bosses tried to topple Chavez by shutting down industry in 2002-3, there were glimpses of this kind of workers’ power in the resistance to the bosses.
The 16,000 communal councils created on Chavez’s initiative and the experiments in workers’ management of industry provide a framework in which this could happen on a far greater scale.
Third, Venezuela needs a revolutionary party that can draw together those with a vision of socialism built from below. Revolutionary processes, such as the one unfolding in Venezuela, are always uneven.
Revolutionary parties start out as parties of a minority. Only in periods of intense class struggle can they can grow to embrace the majority.
Chavez’s proposal is unlikely to lead to the kind of revolutionary party that Venezuela urgently needs. At best, it is likely to reflect the unevenness of the movement. At worst, it could seek to impose a monolithic vision on society.
Chavez suggests that the party will attempt to embrace both souls of the movement.
Despite these concerns, revolutionaries should involve themselves in the debate. It is a chance to engage with millions of grassroots activists in the Bolivarian movement about the kind of party and the kind of change that is needed.
Venezuela and Revolution in the 21st Century by Joseph Choonara is available from Bookmarks for £1. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com