Not everyone who calls themselves anarchists are worthy of the name. Before expressing our solidarity, we should be clear who it is we are supporting.
When it comes to the Venezuelan protests of recent weeks and months, misinformation reigns supreme. Just as liberals and progressives have been misled by desperate hashtags like #SOSVenezuela and simplistic comparisons to Occupy, so too has the radical left been tempted by the some self-described Venezuelan anarchists, and El Libertario in particular.
This is not a critique of anarchism in general or even of all Venezuelan anarchists (I will discuss others below). I have always been very close to the anarchist milieu and, while frustrated by certain anarchist blindspots, I am influenced by anarchism as a doctrine of revolutionary struggle that understands the inherent contradictions of the state. The liberal, middle-class anarchism of El Libertario, however, represents not the fulfillment but the betrayal of this revolutionary anarchist vision. Condescending toward the poor and utterly absent from concrete struggles, it has instead allied itself—as it does today—with reactionary elite movements.
In a recent piece published in English both by Libcom.org and ROAR Magazine, El Libertario figurehead Rafael Uzcátegui (not to be confused with the former guerrilla of the same name), put forth a highly misleading but also revealing account of the recent protests to provide an “anarchist perspective” for the “poorly informed.” Unfortunately, the piece leaves us even more poorly informed than before, and lacks any anarchist perspective whatsoever. (While this is not the time to fully dissect Uzcátegui’s book, translated into English as Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle, let’s just say that—as the title suggests—it’s more Debord than Magón or Bakunin.)
What is misleading is that Uzcátegui repeats mainstream misrepresentations of how the protests started, claiming police repression when the police only acted in response to a February 6th attack on the governor of Táchira’s house. He uncritically reports arrests and torture allegations, despite the fact that most of these were never actually reported to the competent agencies, and some are under investigation. While rightly mentioning the role of intelligence officials in deaths of both protesters and Chavistas on February 12th, he fails to mention that the officers responsible were promptly arrested and charged (the number of officials arrested for excessive force has now reached 17).
He invokes a common refrain that there is no press freedom in Venezuela while noting that it was the most important Venezuelan newspaper, Últimas Noticias (which is sympathetic to the government) that released a crucial video investigation showing the actions of security officials on February 12th. He critiques president Nicolás Maduro’s suggestion that a coup plot similar to the one that briefly overthrew Hugo Chávez in 2002 might be in the works, but leaves out El Libertario’s own ambivalence toward that coup when it happened (see below).
What is revealing, however, is the fact that Uzcátegui positions El Libertario as “simple spectators” and condescendingly blames “low levels of political culture” for the absence of a truly independent left. For anyone who has spent even a week in Venezuela, and especially for those of us from the US who have lived there extensively, this last statement is utterly incomprehensible, since the political culture of Venezuela, the constant flurry of vibrant critical revolutionary activity, is at times overwhelming. But this, alongside Uzcátegui’s demonization of popular revolutionary organizations (colectivos) as “militia groups” speaks volumes about El Libertario’s opposition to popular struggles and the self-activity of the poorest Venezuelans and support for middle-class notions of social change that are ultimately complicit with the right.
Who Are El Libertario?
1. A middle-class organization…
As one former member puts it, El Libertario’s constituency and membership consists of “total upper-class snobs (sifrinos), unos hijitos de papá, pampered rich kids.” Uzcátegui himself comes from a family with money and became even more “gentrified through student politics in the university.” (Uzcátegui has even worked a day job under the former mayor of Baruta in wealthy eastern Caracas, none other than right-wing opposition leader Henrique Capriles, formerly of the US-funded opposition party Primero Justicia). Origin is not a curse, however, and many a revolutionary has committed “class suicide” to join the struggle—not so for El Libertario.
2. … with liberal, middle-class politics…
In the words of a former member, El Libertario “operates more like an NGO than a group, it’s not a grassroots movement,” and this should be no surprise since members have close relations to liberal human rights NGOs like PROVEA, where Uzcátegui works. Whereas revolutionaries worldwide have become increasingly aware of the limitations and even dangers of human rights discourse—which in recent years has been strategically co-opted by right-wing forces worldwide—El Libertario has seemingly moved in the opposite direction. All of which raises an interesting question for self-professed “anarchists”: when the all-out class war comes, will El Libertario be there to defend the human rights of our enemies? This is not to celebrate repression: I have been tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, attacked with concussion grenades, arrested, and assaulted by police—but I have never heard this described as a “human rights violation.”
Inherent limitations of human rights discourse aside, Uzcátegui and PROVEA have gone further in recent weeks by circulating one-sided denunciations of the Maduro government that make no mention of the many deaths at the hands of the opposition protesters. You would have no idea that two motorcyclists had been decapitated by barbed wire seemingly hung for that purpose, or that bystanders had been attacked and even killed when crossing barricades to get to work. Thankfully, a number of human rights defenders—some formerly working with PROVEA and Amnesty International—have recently denounced this manipulative use of human rights discourse.
3. … that upholds middle-class leadership…
Even more astonishingly, in a country in which the poor majority—both the traditional working class and the informal sector—have become increasingly organized and revolutionary, Rodolfo Montes de Oca from El Libertario even openly supports the idea that it is the middle class that should lead the struggle. In an article replete with the obligatory references to “counter-power” and citations of Graeber and Holloway, we find the astounding suggestion that it is “the college-educated middle class, and perhaps owners of small means of production and service providers, who are the best suited to assume leadership within emerging organizations and social movements, since their basic necessities are covered and their autonomy won’t be put at risk [hipotecada].”
Montes’ choice of words is revealing, as hipotecada refers literally to mortgages, implying that the poor will simply sell their political loyalties to the highest bidder. In On Revolution, Hannah Arendt argued that the French Revolution was doomed by “necessity and poverty” because its supporters were drawn from “the multitude of the poor.” Here we have so-called “anarchists” trotting out the same tired argument: the poor, it seems, can’t be trusted to lead their own social struggles, since their empty stomachs will only get in the way. El Libertario aspires to be, in the words of one critic, “The boss in the workplace and the boss in the revolution.”
4. … and is absent from popular struggles…
As a result of this middle-class composition, liberal middle-class ideology, and emphasis on middle-class leadership, it is little surprise that El Libertario would be absent from popular grassroots struggles and allied instead with the more middle-class struggles of increasingly conservative students in elite and private universities. In the words of a former member, El Libertario “has never had a presence in the barrio,” and when small projects were attempted in the past, their vanguardist method of work—in which they sought to enlighten the poor—was “self-isolating” in practice. Other Venezuelan anarchists similarly insist that El Libertario is “never seen by communities in struggle.” Even El Libertario sympathizers have observed that “they have only the most marginal presence in many key sectors of social struggle,” a characterization which fits Uzcátegui’s admission that they are “simple spectators.”
For example, when revolutionary organizations engaged in direct action in 2004, tearing down a statue of Columbus in Plaza Venezuela in the name of decolonization, some were arrested and Chávez denounced the organizers as “anarchists.” Rather than participating in the action or showing solidarity with those arrested, El Libertario instead chose to mock the action as somehow—here revealing their longstanding obsession—simply a spectacle, and blamed those arrested for naively presuming the government would support them. In the complex dialectic of the revolutionary process, it’s worth pointing out that despite Chávez’s initial denunciation, these and other radical direct actions pushed the Bolivarian government toward emphasizing indigenous genocide and eventually declaring October 12th the “Day of Indigenous Resistance.”
After a similarly combative action on the anniversary of the Caracazo in 2008 which Chávez similarly criticized as “anarchistic,” again El Libertario did not express solidarity but instead issued a statement insisting that Chávez did not know what the word meant. According to participants, he had evidently “touched their sacred word,” and they couldn’t allow anyone else to be accused of anarchism, and so they misrepresented the slogan of the action—“we don’t want them to govern us: we want to govern”—as simply a demand for state power.
5. … and more likely to join forces with the right…
The list goes on and on: while revolutionaries (who supported Chávez) were repressed by the National Guard while participating in a 2008 caravan to support indigenous Yukpa rights, El Libertario was nowhere to be seen (despite paying lip service to the Yukpa struggle), but was instead in the streets with middle-class students, defending the right-wing TV station RCTV. This all points to a troubling trend: instead of submerging themselves in revolutionary popular struggles, El Libertario has moved increasingly toward student struggles that tend toward the right. This trend has only been confirmed in recent weeks, as members of El Libertario have openly celebrated the middle-class and largely right-wing protest movement. Uzcátegui has even gone so far—according to his tweets—as to mistake this middle-class crowd (which other “libertarians” argue is hegemonically fascist) for the networked multitude, thereby committing the cardinal error of forgetting that for old Antonio Negri, the multitude is above all a “class concept.”
6. … due to a caricatured “three-way fight” politics…
El Libertario like to position themselves as being equally opposed to both Chavismo and the right. While this invokes in some ways the “three-way fight” logic in the form of the lucha tripolar, or “tripolar struggle”, it is in a brutally caricatured form (although, let’s be real, three-way fight is capable of its own ridiculous caricature). This was as clear during the right-wing coup of April 2002 as it is today: confronted with a coup that removed not only Chávez but also the progressive 1999 Constitution, and which left dozens dead in the streets before it was reversed through popular mass rebellion, El Libertario again stood on the sidelines, unwilling to even condemn this quasi-fascist assault on the people. (Issues 26 and 27 of El Libertario, published around the time of the coup, are conveniently missing from the web archive, but I have myself interviewed former members who left El Libertario after it took this “reactionary position”).
7. … making any mass-revolutionary outlook impossible.
Uzcátegui insists that “The Revolutionary Independent Venezuelan Left (anarchists, sectors that follow Trotsky, Marx, Lenin and Guevara)” are “simple spectators”—but what about revolutionary socialists like the Marea Socialista current? What about revolutionary anarchist-libertarian militants like Roland Denis, who rather than admiring the networked creativity of these protesters urges us instead to take radical measures to “deactivate fascism”? And what about revolutionary Guevaraists like the new Bolivarian-Guevaraist Current or the La Piedrita Collective, one of those popular collectives that Uzcátegui smears as a blindly Chavista militia, despite the fact that they predated Chávez by decades and frequently clashed with the government in practice.
Rather than humbly seeking a basis in mass work, El Libertario condescendingly insists that if the masses don’t join them, so much the worse for the masses. Accordingly, it smears those who disagree as oficialistas, supporters of the government, in an attempt to erase the very real history of revolutionary autonomy within the Bolivarian movement. Thus while El Libertario parrots tired mantras of the opposition that there is no press freedom in Venezuela (which is a blatant lie, incidentally), it ignores the flourishing of popular grassroots media in recent years, as well as the fact that revolutionaries were demanding that media be “neither private nor state-run.” Anyone who happens to also support the Bolivarian process, or to see it as worth defending despite its limitations and defects, is according to El Libertario a sell-out and a pawn.
But this view is not revolutionary and certainly not anarchist. Any anarchist revolution will be a mass, class-based phenomenon or it will be nothing at all. This doesn’t mean that anarchists and anti-authoritarians should simply uncritically toe the Chavista line, but instead engage directly in building revolutionary movements, spaces, and ruptures within and against the mainstream of the Bolivarian movement, as thousands of Venezuelan revolutionaries have been doing for years if not decades.
Will the Real Anarchists Please Stand Up?
While capital-A anarchism has never been a major force in Venezuela, the liberal anarchism of El Libertario does not enjoy the monopoly on the term that it would like you to believe. A good example was the Revolutionary Anarchist Federation of Venezuela (FARV), which unfortunately dissolved last year. The FARV represented the voice of revolutionary, decolonial, class-struggle anarchism in Venezuela, but like most non-middle-class movements, this was not a voice that was amplified by translated books or US speaking tours, and so I will quote at length from the FARV to compensate.
In a 2012 article, Luis from the FARV provided an exhaustive analysis of the “absurdities of El Libertario” and, rejecting El Libertario’s attempts to “hoard” and “monopolize” the name anarchism, sketched the parameters for a truly revolutionary anarchist alternative. This alternative sets out from a firm rejection of the middle-class ideology and leadership that defines El Libertario. Noting that “we have always been under the leadership of the privileged classes,” the FARV insists that to uphold middle-class leadership is to maintain the traditional reproduction of the system whereby academic institutions legitimate those “predestined to guide the country… this is exactly the same as the opposition discourse that speaks of a so-called meritocracy, loaded with racism, classism, liberalism, colonialism, and fascism.”
Further, suggesting that those possessing the means of production are rightful movement leaders is to “validate exploitation, difference, and privileges rather than combating them, which we understand to be the reason we are anarchists to begin with… Proudhon cried ‘property is theft,’ and so that small property… is therefore a small theft, a small parasitic action.” Worst of all, to openly celebrate middle-class origins by embracing middle-class politics is to contribute to discrediting of anarchism itself by reinforcing the oldest caricature of anarchism in the books, “sustain[ing] the fallacies Bolsheviks have woven about anarchism… that anarchism is a petit-bourgeois ideology.” For the FARV,
The anarcho-liberals [of El Libertario] are part of the middle class and proud of it, so we know that they will never work against their own interests… [But] fortunately, the popular movement doesn’t let anyone act in its name, much less the middle class. Fortunately, social movements are not the same as the popular movement. Fortunately, the popular movement continues to advance toward collective forms of leadership.
The correct position toward these popular movements is not of course the passivity of “simple spectators” as Uzcátegui would have it, and the FARV rejects the three-way fight insofar as it represents “the posture of the ‘enlightened third way’… which does not participate in struggles but only watches, criticizes, and pretends to give the orders because it believes it possesses a luminous truth. An arrogant and authoritarian ‘anarchism’ that we do not share.”
The FARV “expresses ourselves from the position of concrete popular struggles. It is from this difference that all other differences stem.” They spread libertarian ideas “not only with the word, but with everyday constructive action alongside the children of the people. With humility and as equals, since there is much we have to learn from communities in struggle.” As the FARV recognized in a 2012 communiqué, to position oneself alongside concrete communities in struggle is not to oppose the Bolivarian process—understood as something that began long before Chávez and will continue long after him—but to embrace aspects of it while pressing it in ever more revolutionary directions:
Our struggle is for libertarian communism, and so we are not willing to go back to a ‘state of affairs’ in which: we will be persecuted, where alternative media will be closed, where lands and businesses today under communal control will be returned to large landholders and businessmen, where there will be systematic violations of human rights, where the juridical instruments that can help the popular cause [i.e., the 1999 Constitution] and the future construction of truly horizontal and assembly-based communal spaces will disappear… to regress to a past that, scarcely concealed, awaits a fascist backlash.
Instead, from this position in concrete popular struggles, the FARV embraces a different sort of three-way fight:
We are equally against those supposedly ‘leftist’ positions that want us to believe that ‘this is more of the same’ as we are against those top-down accommodationists who insist that ‘this is a true revolution’… and even more certain ‘personalities’ who take refuge in anarchist ideas (and certain Trotskyist positions) to cover up the fact that they speak from a bourgeois perspective, and thereby to invisibilize struggles and processes of change… We also say to these anarchists-turned-hucksters, commercializers and tourists of ideas, that fascism shall not pass.
This does not mean that the state is not powerfully dangerous and contradictory, of course: according to the FARV, “no state is revolutionary,” but “as anarchists we know that this process… is constituted as a collective and common task of the Venezuelan people, and therefore that the conditions of possibility today posed by connecting tactically to the Bolivarian state must not be abandoned.” Anarchism can only be built through the collective struggle of the masses, and for reasons both defensive (avoiding repression) and offensive (laying claim to new spaces opened by the process), this mass struggle emerges through the Bolivarian process (although in a tense and often conflictive relation to the government).
This means resisting the automatic solidarities and stifling confines of a capital-A anarchism that limits itself to those self-described anarchists:
In the present moment there exist many examples of spaces that, while not defining themselves as anarchist, are nevertheless engaged in everyday libertarian practices: communities that possess a certain degree of social production, self-government, and self-defense… [like] Collectives in 23 de Enero, Alexis Vive Collective, Montaraz Collective, among others.
El Libertario, faithful to their class background and class politics, “are more afraid of Chavismo and the revolution than fascism, the oligarchy, and the Venezuelan right-wing, with which they gladly march.” So it is no surprise that these collectives celebrated by the FARV for their tacitly anarchist activity are the very same collectives that are today demonized by a fearful bourgeoisie as well as their anarchist collaborators who mimic elites in their denunciation of “militia groups.”
The FARV’s reply to El Libertario’s strange right-wing bedfellows is blunt:
No, we have nothing in common with the bourgeoisie. El Libertario and the FARV are not the same thing. It is very different to say ‘social movements’ (meaning NGOs and foundations) vs. ‘popular movement’ (collectives and working groups, campesino fronts, land occupation movements, indigenous movements, health committees, land committees, etc). Bakunin is right, the middle class is one thing, with its aspirations and conceits; the children of the people with their struggles, dreams, and victories are another thing entirely… As children of the people we don’t hope for anything of the middle class, and much less its leadership… We choose not to be on the side of a class that fears the revolution…
We prefer instead to be with the popular movement, with its rebellious, disobedient, and ungovernable temperament; with its self-managed experiments, with its steps toward socialism, with its libertarian yearnings and its anarchist intuition… we need to look for [this anarchist impulse]—not in the middle class, not in the communiqués of the bourgeoisie, not on the internet or in the official speeches of university professors, not on television or in Chávez’s statements or actions, but in the barrios, in the communities in struggle, at the heart of the popular movement.
In We Created Chávez, I wrote that “Far too often, discussions of contemporary Venezuela revolve around the figure of the Venezuelan president. Whether from opponents on the conservative right or the anarchist left or supporters in between, the myopia is the same.” Similarly, the FARV argue that:
The acolytes of Chávez-centrism, whether Chavistas or from the opposition, share the determination to circumscribe everything in the figure of Chávez, either by denying the accomplishments of the Bolivarian process and saying that everything bad is due to the zambo of their nightmares, or by fomenting the idea that these accomplishments are the gifts of power or the result of Chávez’s benevolence.
We, on the other hand, consider these accomplishments to be the product of the historic struggles of the popular movement, which have cost us and continue to cost us blood and sacrifice… Although El Libertario, along with the right-wing opposition and the red [Chavista] bureaucracy attempt to erase all traces of the autonomy of popular action, we the children of the people will continue organizing, they will hear our voices more often and will have to get used to seeing our faces.
Not everyone who calls themselves anarchists are worthy of the name, and before revolutionaries in the U.S. or elsewhere re-post articles, translate books, or organize speaking tours, we should be clear what it is we are supporting. Especially in Latin America, moreover, we must be attentive to the thousands engaged in revolutionary anti-state activity that don’t even call themselves “anarchists.” To support middle-class, liberal anarchists like El Libertario is to be against the revolution, against concrete popular struggles of the Venezuelan poor, and even against anarchism itself.
George Ciccariello-Maher is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Duke University Press, 2013).