15 August, when Hugo Chavez overwhelmingly won the referendum designed to remove him as president of Venezuela, was a bad day for George W Bush and Tony Blair.
Equally, it was a very good day for everyone fighting them, and the unjust and corrupt global order they strive to maintain.
But is there room, amid the celebration of Chavez’s victory, for discussion among those who supported him about the way forward for his “Bolivarian Revolution”?
Ann Jennings, in a letter in last week’s issue of Socialist Worker, complains that Mike Gonzalez, in his report on the referendum (Socialist Worker, 21 August), had “a few warm words for Chavez but then goes on to raise doubts about his politics.
“Mike should spend more time raising support for the Chavez government, not joining with those who undermine it – however subtly.”
In fact there is no question but that both Mike and Socialist Worker stand with Chavez against the rich and corrupt oligarchy that sought, with Washington’s support, to remove him. But there is more to be said, as Chavez himself makes clear. This is what he told Tariq Ali, one of his leading British supporters:
“I don’t believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don’t accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolutions. Are we aiming in Venezuela for the abolition of private property or a classless society? I don’t think so.
“But if I’m told that because of that reality you can’t do anything to help the poor then I say, ‘We part company.’
“I will never accept that there can be no redistribution of wealth in society. Our upper classes don’t even like paying taxes. That’s one reason they hate me. I believe it’s better to die in battle rather than hold aloft a very revolutionary and very pure banner, and do nothing.
“Try and make your revolution, go into combat, advance a little, even if it’s only a millimetre, in the right direction, instead of dreaming about utopias.”
Chavez is, of course, entirely justified in dismissing those who talk big about revolution but do nothing to try to make the world a better place in the here and now. They’re a waste of time.
As for Chavez’s own approach, Tariq Ali sums it up very well: “What Chavez is attempting is nothing more or less than the creation of a radical social democracy in Venezuela that seeks to empower the lowest strata of society. In these times of deregulation, privatisation and the Anglo-Saxon model of wealth subsuming politics, Chavez’s aims are regarded as revolutionary.”
Tariq is right that today even pursuing quite modest reforms means confrontation with the entrenched concentrations of economic and political power that dominate the world. But it is this very fact that puts into question Chavez’s renunciation of revolution.
Sooner or later any reform movement is going to have to seek to destroy the establishment that blocks any change for the better, or to compromise with it. The more self organised the mass of workers and poor people are, the easier it will be to take the first option.
Chavez’s biggest weakness is that he sees himself as the force driving change and looks to the masses only to back him up. This means that everything turns on his personal qualities – his courage and commitment. If he falters or dies, then the revolution is threatened with disaster.
But the most important point is that all these arguments, about reform and revolution, leadership and self organisation, are a legitimate part of any genuine movement for change. There is no contradiction between marching together against the real “axis of evil” and discussing among ourselves how to take the battle forward.
The Zapatistas have a good way of putting it: “Walking forward questioning.” These debates – so long as they are conducted in the right spirit – can make us stronger, not weaker.