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Building a democratic, humanist socialism


We have to invent the new socialism for the 21st century. Capitalism is not a sustainable model of development. Hugo Chavez, March 4, 2005

In recent months, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has begun to explicitly advocate for socialism, marking a significant development for both the Bolivarian Revolution in that country and for the broader international movement.

There is no doubt that the United States government understands the significance of the current direction of the process in Venezuela. An oil-rich country with a radical, anti-imperialist government which has received repeated, indisputable democratic mandates and now advocates for socialism, the government in Caracas poses the gravest ‘threat of a good example’ since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. As if taunting Uncle Sam for its historic failure to destroy and isolate Cuba completely, Chavez now flaunts his close friendship with Fidel Castro, inviting thousands of Cuban doctors to Venezuela, and sending oil at preferential prices to the energy-starved Caribbean island.

Little surprise that, with a newly emboldened Bolivarian government and an increasingly demoralized opposition, there have been repeated warnings of plots to assassinate the Venezuelan president. Chavez addressed the situation with a threat of his own, announcing on his Alo Presidente radio show that “the Venezuelan people will stop even one drop of oil from going to the U.S. if there is any attempt made on my life” (Bloomberg, March 5, 2005).

While flexing oil muscle in an effort to dissuade U.S. complicity in efforts to physically eliminate him, Chavez remained on the ideological offensive:

I am convinced, and I think that this conviction will be for the rest of my life, that the path to a new, better and possible world, is not capitalism, the path is socialism. (Alo Presidente, February 27, 2005)

The global movement for social justice must take seriously the continuing threats against the Bolivarian process in Venezuela. Much of the Left initially remained aloof from Chavez, variously denouncing him as a Bonapartist, reformist, or caudillo.

The reversal of the April 2002 coup against Chavez changed this sectarian approach for the better, but much work in building links of solidarity remains to be done. More than just defending Venezuela’s right to self-determination, though, progressives should also take seriously the challenge to ‘re-invent’ socialism.

The movement against corporate globalization has, rather proudly, avoided projecting any specific solutions to the ills of capitalism, eschewing the classic ‘meta-narrative’ of the Left, that capitalism would inevitably be replaced by socialism and communism on a world scale. Political pluralism became a watchword for the World Social Forum (WSF) and its leading convenors; certainly this could be understood as a healthy and understandable reaction to the evils perpetrated in the name of socialism throughout the 20th century.

But while Kampuchea’s killing fields, Russia’s gulags, and the repugnant bureaucratic privileges and internecine murders sullied the image of socialism, so too has social democracy – from the chauvinist betrayal marked by support for the carnage of World War I right up to Tony Blair’s imperial adventure in Iraq – systematically disappointed and betrayed the working people and progressives who fought for social change.

This record of failure left the Right triumphant and, buoyed by the fall of the Berlin Wall and “actually existing socialism,” on the offensive over the past 15 years, aggressively implementing neo-liberal ‘reforms’ globally, either through the WTO and economic blackmail, or through cruise missiles and ‘regime change.’ So the Bolivarian Revolution, together with other vibrant social movements in Latin America and global resistance to war and occupation in the Middle East, represents a welcome and overdue challenge to Empire.

Venezuela likely would have been the last place that the champions of capitalist hegemony expected to see their perspective begin to be seriously challenged. Through the 1970s and much of the 80s Venezuela was lauded as a stable democracy, in a continent marked by guerrilla insurgencies, coup d’etats and brutal right-wing dictatorships. The ancien regime in Caracas, in fact, began to shatter in 1989, the same year that the Berlin Wall came down. While that year’s Tiennamen Massacre is universally remembered, the Caracazo is largely unknown; in February, 1989, an uprising against neo-liberal austerity measures was drowned in blood, with hundreds killed by the Venezuelan police and army.

That experience accelerated the plans of a dissenting group of young army officers, and in 1992 Colonel Chavez led a failed military-civilian rebellion. Chavez’s televised statement of surrender in 1992 catapulted him to national prominence, and within six years he was swept to power in an electoral landslide.

As mentioned, Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution were initially disparaged by much of the Left, and some worried about this ‘top-down’ leader’s influence on the World Social Forum. At this year’s gathering in Porto Alegre, though, Chavez was unquestionably the most popular figure, his presence revealing deep-going resentment of Lula’s moderate approach and collaboration with IMF dictates.

Chavez, in fact, had to intervene to quell a packed stadium’s chants of “Chavez si, Lula no!” Before that same crowd, the Venezuelan leader made his most overt ideological statement to date:

We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything. That’s the debate we must promote around the world, and the WSF is a good place to do it.

Let’s hope this call is heeded, and that the debate begins in earnest. Defeating U.S. imperialism and developing viable alternatives to neo-liberalism depends on us meeting this key challenge for the 21st century.

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