Those who do not learn from history

01 January 2007
Article
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez followed his re-election in December by announcing a new political party to be ‘with him in government’. Edgardo Lander, an academic who has played an active part in the Venezuelan revolutionary process, explains his doubts about such an approach to building socialism for the 21st century

There is no possibility of building a democratic alternative to the capitalist order, of pursuing a project of 'socialism in the 21st century', without first having a profound debate on the historical experience of 'really-existing socialism' in the 20th century - particularly in its hegemonic form in the USSR. We can't start by dismissing that as the experience of the last century and arguing that the historical conditions of the new century will allow for the building of a new experience free of the burden of such a past.

As a 'superior' democratic alternative to the capitalist order of exploitation, the socialism of the 20th century was a resounding failure. Not only did it not overcome the formal limitations of liberal democracy, but it built an authoritarian order that ended up destroying any idea of democracy. Inherent to that model was the denial of the extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity of the planet, which it tried to subdue in a universal 'proletarian' culture. In terms of production, the USSR experience deepened many of the negative trends of the capitalist model. It unquestioningly perpetuated the patterns of knowledge, technology, production and patriarchy used to exploit the rest of nature. This led to a pattern of environmental destruction even more accelerated than that of capitalist societies.

If we are to introduce the idea of socialism in the 21st century as a new historical experience, a radically democratic society that incorporates and celebrates the diversity of human experience and is able to live in harmony with all life forms on the planet, we must articulate a profound critique of that historical experience. Without a clear diagnosis of the reasons why the party-state model of the USSR led to the establishment of an authoritarian order that found its highest expression in Stalinism, we won't have the tools to prevent its repetition. Without a radical questioning of the philosophy of the Eurocentric history that shaped socialism and Marxism in the 19th and 20th centuries, we won't be able to incorporate one of the most amazing achievements of the popular struggles of the past few decades - the assertion of the immense plurality of human histories and cultures and the need to protect that diversity. Without a critique of the basic principles of the scientific and technological model of western industrial society, even those projects for change that present themselves as radically anticapitalist will just emphasise the authoritarian and destructive patterns of our society - as they have done in the past.

So far in Venezuela, the public debate around the idea of socialism in the 21st century hasn't even begun to address these points. But if this debate doesn't open up we run the risk that the idea becomes an empty slogan, or that we confuse the ability to speak a phrase - 'socialism in the 21st century' - with knowledge of what we're talking about. Then the slogan actually hides the absence of collective reflection and builds a false consensus - the consensus of silence.

At the centre of the needed debate on the previous experience of socialism are the roles of the state and the party in the possibility of building a democratic society. The stateparty monolith monopolised every aspect of collective life and ended up suffocating any debate or dissent, and thus the very possibility of plurality and democracy. So today we must put the role and character of the state, and its relationship with the different forms of organisation and association that make up society, at the heart of our quest for a new kind of socialism. Also key is discussion of the political and organisational modes of operation that contribute to building democracy. The historical experience strongly suggests that the state-party model is not a path that leads to democracy.

That is why the way Chavez launched his latest political initiative - to establish a single party of the forces supporting the 'Bolivarian process' - is extremely worrying. On 15 December, ten days after his crushing election victory, he simply announced that he had decided it was necessary to create a single party. He suggested calling it United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

'I declare that I am going to create a new party,' he told a rally at the Teatro Teresa Carreo. 'I invite whoever wants to join me to come with me … Those parties that want to stay [as parties], go ahead, but they will be out of the government. I only want one party to govern with me. The votes don't belong to any party, they belong to Chavez and to the people, don't be fooled.'

It is worrying that this is how something of such importance for the future of Venezuela has been decided. It is even more problematic to see how this announcement was received by the most relevant political forces and spokespeople of chavismo.

In one of the first public reactions to the announcement, Elvis Amoroso said that his organisation would comply with the decision of their leader. Amoroso is the leader of the party founded by Chavez, the Movimiento V Republica (MVR), or Movement for the Fifth Republic, which will be dissolved to be part of the new party.

The Chavez ally and former vice president, Diosdado Cabello, said : 'The single party is a reality, and in this sense there is nothing to discuss. The only thing left to do is to organise the ideological congress that will be held during the first trimester of 2007 in order to come up with the guidelines to be implemented to bring this proposal to life.'

According to Francisco Ameliach, director general of the MVR and member of its single party commission, it is the head of state, as president of the organisation, who has the final say when it comes to the party. For the time being, he said, Chavez had not given any concrete instructions on this. But almost immediately, the MVR started the formal procedures to dissolve itself.

Several minor organisations and political groups quickly announced their affiliation to the new party. According to the secretary of the national organization of the Socialist League, Wilfredo Jiménez, his organisation welcomed the proposal: 'We make our task the building of endogenous socialism, from the bottom up in all its expressions: workers, peasants, indigenous people, communities, students, housewives and those in the informal economy, among others. Moreover, we commit ourselves to the building method proposed by Commander Hugo Chávez Frías … Before taking the decision, there will be a popular referendum in January to take account of the 33 years of struggle in Venezuela.'

The spokespeople of the Movimiento Electoral di Pueblo (MEP), the Frente Cívico Militar Bolivariano and the Movimiento Democracia Directa said similar things. The Partido Unidad Popular Venezolana (UPV) not only announced its willingness to be part of the new party, but then went to the national electoral council to announce its dissolution. Only Patria Para Todos (PPT), the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) and Podemos expressed doubts about the process.

According to Rafael Uzcátegui, the PPT's national organisation secretary, this is not a decision that can be taken without internal debate: 'We can't undermine internal democracy in the name of unity. In this we don't agree with President Hugo Chávez. Debate is the only way to build consciousness. PTT is a disciplined and democratic organisation… We are the children of debate. Hugo Chavez's proposal to build a single party must be considered by the national assembly of the party'. Uzcátegui highlighted the importance of pluralism by saying that: 'There is no unanimity on the vision of socialism.'

Meanwhile, the political bureau of the Communist Party issued a statement in which it reiterated the party's 'consistent affiliation with the strategic task of building the organic unity of the Venezuelan revolutionary movement' and announced an extraordinary national congress to 'define the course to be taken by the PCV and the Communist Youth in relation to organic unity'.

Most of the leaders of Podemos have declared their agreement with the building of a single party, but they demand respectful and egalitarian treatment. According to Podemos general secretary Ismael Garcia: 'In this dialogue there can't be poor or orphan relatives.'

Luis Tascon, an MP and leader of the MVR, dismisses these doubts, arguing that if these the PPT, PCV and Podemos don't immediately accept the proposal it is just because they want to keep their 'quotas of power … They would rather be small fish in a big pond.'

Apart from this limited exchange, there has been no substantive debate on the best way to organise politically in order to promote a process of deepening democracy in Venezuela. Many questions remain unanswered.

Does it make any sense to create a socialist party before collectively starting a process of working out the kind of socialism we all aspire to? Aren't we putting the cart before the horse?

From the point of view of plurality and democracy, what future is there for a party created in such a way? Is it possible to have a debate that is controversial, democratic and diverse on the path the country is taking if some of the basic options that define such a path are announced as decisions that have been taken before the debate even starts?

Will it be possible to take steps towards a greater balance between the - so far - irreplaceable leadership of Chavez in the current political process and other more diverse spaces and leaderships, with the aim of expressing the broad range of positions and visions in relation to building an alternative society?

Hugo Chavez's conclusive victory in the December election presents us with a very favourable conjuncture for the opening of such debates and controversies about the society we want. We will have a lot to regret in the future if we don't take advantage of this opportunity.