Monday, March 25, 2013

Late To Hugo's Funeral

I know I'm a bit late in offering thoughts on the death of Hugo Chavez. It's just that I was so overwhelmed by grief--no, just kidding. In reality, the role of this blog is to respond to the Trotskyist press. Now that the April 1st issue of The Militant is out, I think I've waited long enough. The jury is in, and the The Militant and Socialist Action have said--nothing! (Socialist Viewpoint has a two month publication schedule, and I'm not willing to wait that long. The corpse will stink by then.)

I'm not surprised. I didn't expect them to say anything. You would think that an event of some geopolitical importance at least deserves mention.

More surprising is that over the years neither of the publications has said very much about Mr. Chavez at all. The Militant reports on the International Book Fairs, held annually in Caracas. (What is it about Communists and book fairs?) But these articles offer no larger insight into Mr. Chavez's regime.

Socialist Action has a bit more to say, but most of it is pretty old, dating from 2008 and before. I have not read through all of that, but some representative articles are here, here, and here. The most recent substantive mention of Mr. Chavez that I could find appeared in a 2011 article about Libya, and states
Unfortunately, much of the left fell for his [Qaddafi] rhetoric, as they had—and still do—for other bourgeois populists in neocolonial countries.
Particularly disappointing is the role of Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega, and Fidel Castro in their one-sided, if correct, denunciation of imperialism’s interests and intentions in this affair, while denying or ignoring Qaddafi’s repression and murders. Chavez even offered to mediate the dispute—an offer immediately rejected by the resistance. Numerous Latin American revolutionaries reacted with horror to the stances of these three leaders, worrying that the potential for solidarity between the masses of the Arab world and Latin America was being destroyed.
In 2010, in an article about Honduras, we read
But we also raise the alarm: reformist leaders will leave workers unprepared and vulnerable when the right-wing attack comes. Their perspective neither takes the threat of the capitalist class seriously enough nor prepares for defense against and victory over that class.
Even President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a man that many revolutionaries around the world regard as a comrade, has faults in this area. While it is true that Chavez has armed workers in his country to an extent, something that no other leader we have mentioned did, the weaknesses of his political perspective are evident.
For example, when speaking this year to 35,000 assembled members of the civilian militia on the anniversary of the 2002 failed coup against him, Chavez said that in the event of his assassination the militia should “know what [they] would have to do. Simply take all power in Venezuela, absolutely all, sweep away the bourgeoisie from all political and economic spaces, deepen the revolution.” This revolutionary program should be Chavez’ program for today, not the contingency plan for his death.
This is damning with faint praise.

As I understand it, Trotskyists view Mr. Chavez as a reformist, petty bourgeois populist. That's a leader that wants to co-opt the working class with radical sounding rhetoric (and occasional action) but nevertheless refuses to actually arm the working class and disappropriate the oligarchs. In other words, he's a false prophet, revolutionary in mouth, but not in deed. Boiled down, they condemn Mr. Chavez because he's not a card-carrying Trotskyist. So no wonder they're silent about his death.

My non-Trotskyist correspondent, Louis Proyect, quotes a fun and funny article here. At the end Mr. Proyect appends his own comment:
I’ve always thought that a good way to test the sincerity of anyone who claims to be on the Left is to find out their attitude to Hugo Chávez. Those who try to disavow him tend to be, in general, useless: they want a pure, ideal socialism, not socialism as a real material movement. Chávez wasn’t perfect. In some areas he went too far; in many he didn’t go nearly far enough. Nonetheless the immense good his Bolivarian Revolution has done for the people of Venezuela – and for people across Latin America and the world – is undeniable. What must be remembered, though, is that Hugo Chávez didn’t do any of this alone. His achievements were those of every doctor, teacher, worker, farmer and organiser who worked to improve the lives of those around them. The social movements he helped build and connect will long survive him. Descanse en paz. La lucha sigue.
This is certainly a fair criticism of Trotskyist sectarianism. My visceral reaction is to reject his claim that the "Bolivarian revolution" (whatever the hell that is) has done much for the people of Venezuela. But on further reading I discover that Mr. Proyect is correct, at least in the narrowest sense of the word.

The best obituary for Mr. Chavez was written by Megan McArdle, and I can't do better than link to that. Her lede is "it's no good doing redistribution if you don't have anything to distribute in the first place." She gives Chavez the benefit of the doubt for good intentions, and acknowledges that there has been some improvement in the lot of the poor. But in the effort to improve the lives of the "working class," he stole from the productive parts of society. In particular, he cannibalized the oil industry, deferring maintenance beyond the point of no repair. She documents that Venezuela's oil revenue is decreasing while world oil prices have been relentlessly rising over the past several years.

In other words, and possibly apart from good intentions, Mr. Chavez has borrowed from Zimbabwe and dismantled productive assets for short-term benefits. Mr. Mugabe disappropriated "white" farms for his political cronies (destroying Zimbabwean agriculture), while Mr. Chavez has done the same with Venezuela's oil industry.

I predict that Venezuela will continue to follow Zimbabwe with sharply declining living standards and mass immiseration of the population. Mr. Proyect, The Militant, and Socialist Action will all come to regret their support for Mr. Chavez, however tepid it might have been.

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