Popular Protagonism in Venezuela’s Transition to Socialism: A Conversation With Michael Lebowitz

The Marxist theorist emphasizes that socialism involves people transforming themselves.

By Cira Pascual Marquina – Jul 11th 2020

Michael Lebowitz is a professor of political economy, researcher, and prolific writer. He is the author of Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (1992), The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (2015), and the upcoming Between Capitalism and Community (2021). From 2006 to 2011, Lebowitz was Development Director in the Program in Transformative Practice and Human Development at the Centro Internacional Miranda, in Caracas. In this interview, he explores the importance of participation and democracy in the construction of socialism, while reflecting on the internal contradictions of the Bolivarian Process.

You have written a great deal about the transition to socialism, and one of your emphases is the role of participation through cooperatives or communes. Why are participative and cooperative experiences so important in the transition to socialism, and how does your emphasis differ from other perspectives on the transition?

Capitalism, which destroys human beings and nature, must be ended, but you can not build socialism without the protagonism by which people change themselves. Can you revolutionize society while leaving people unchanged? Marx and Engels answered a writer who posed this possibility by stating that in revolutionary activity, “the changing of oneself coincides with the changing of circumstances.” Through their activity, people transform circumstances and their capacities and thus make themselves fit to build a new world.

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Marx’s concept of revolutionary practice, the simultaneous changing of circumstances and self-change, is echoed in the Bolivarian Constitution’s argument that the protagonism of people is the necessary condition for their complete development, both individual and collective. This focus upon protagonism, too, explains the Constitution’s encouragement of self-management, cooperatives, and forms of association guided by cooperation and solidarity. For me, this focus upon the centrality of protagonism was always at the core of the Bolivarian project, and it was reflected in the program I directed at Centro Internacional Miranda [an internationalist research center founded by Chávez], “Transformative Practice and Human Development.”

Emphasis upon the necessary transformation of people, though, is not a central theme for many who talk about a transition to socialism. Rather, their focus is upon achieving state ownership of the means of production and development of the productive forces upon that basis. The stress is upon direction of the economy from above to someday get to the point when participation and worker management will be possible. Socialism from this perspective comes as a gift from those above; it marks a situation in which (as Marx commented) one part of society is superior to another.

But what kinds of people are produced under these circumstances? It is not coincidental that the working class in countries that have followed this model has accepted without protest the restoration of capitalism. You avoid that sad outcome, I suggest, by simultaneously transforming the economy and building the capacities of people through their protagonism.

An assembly at El Maizal Commune. (Cira Pascual Marquina/Venezuelanaysis)

How do you evaluate the Venezuelan plan for the transition to socialism? Throughout the last twenty years, though with varying degrees of emphasis, there has been a focus on participation. For example, the 1999 constitution declares itself in favor of “participative and protagonistic democracy.” There have also been efforts to promote the experience of cooperative work, NUDEs [“Nucleos de Desarrollo Endogeno” or Endogenous Development Nuclei], communal councils, and finally, since 2009, communes.

The premise of your question is that there is a Venezuelan plan for the transition to socialism. I would question that. There have been glimpses of a project, invariably associated with President Chavez, but steps in that direction have been sabotaged. In 2005 there was a massive and enthusiastic May Day march on the slogan of “without codetermination, there is no socialism” (quoting Chavez). But that drive came to an end. Further, there were a number of efforts to introduce worker management into state companies, generating much enthusiasm by workers. But they went nowhere. Opposition came from state officials (including ministers), bureaucrats within those firms, and economistic trade union leaders.

A similar pattern occurred where workers formed cooperatives to operate recovered factories – a direction not sympathetic to these efforts was appointed from the top. Insistence upon direction from above similarly has plagued the development from below of communal councils and communes. Paulo Freire described this tendency, in the best case, as one in which those above “talk about the people but they do not trust them.”

Chavez’s gut instinct was to trust the people – as revealed by his advocacy of worker control, communal councils, and communes. And that is why people responded so strongly to him. But he was sitting in what Alberto Muller Rojas called in 2007 “a nest of scorpions,” surrounded by people who lacked that trust and who had their own agendas. The result is what I call sabotage – prevention of development at the base, that necessary development of the capacities of people. In my essay called “Socialism does not fall from the sky,” I quoted Rosa Luxemburg’s essential point, “The working class demands the right to make its own mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history.” There was a potential Venezuelan plan for the transition to socialism, but it has yet to be articulated and realized.

Hugo Chavez giving the speech known as “Strike at the Helm.” October 20, 2012. (MinCI)

What do you see as the role of the state in the transition? How should it relate to the communes? Should it be a promoter, a mentor, a protector? What are the possible pitfalls in the state-commune relation, and have we seen them in Venezuela?

The state is essential for the transition to socialism. But what do we mean by the state? In my book, The Socialist Imperative, I argued that we needed to think of two states – on the one hand, the existing top-down state, the old state, and, on the other hand, the state-based upon protagonistic institutions like workers’ councils, communal councils, and communes that Chavez called the cells of the new socialist state. Both states, I stressed, were essential for the transition. The old state because it could directly challenge capital by taking the state (including the military and police) away from capital and because it could look at the whole to identify critical bottlenecks and places for initiatives that require a concentration of forces. The new state, on the other hand, because it permits the unleashing of tacit knowledge and popular energy in new social subjects with new capacities, pride, and dignity. That new state points toward the new socialist society.

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It is important to understand that both states are necessary at the outset and that they are contradictory. Whereas the cells of the new socialist state allow people to transform themselves, they do so in small units and their spontaneous tendency is one of localism, collective self-interest, and the potential for inequality in society. On the other hand, while contesting the emergence of inequality and other threats to solidarity, the top-down character of the old state tends to deform the cells of the new and to discourage initiative and enthusiasm.

Precisely because of such contradictory tendencies (for which there are many examples in Venezuela) between the two states, it is necessary to learn to walk on two legs – both to use the old state to defeat capital and to represent the interests of the whole and also to develop the new state where protagonism builds new socialist people. During the interregnum in which the old state cannot yet die and the new state is not yet able to stand on its own feet, it is essential that the old state nurture the sprouts of the new and foster the growth of those cells of the new socialist state. To answer your question, then, yes, the old state must promote and protect the new sprouts and to take care not to crush them. At the same time, those new cells must take the initiative to go beyond localism and collective self-interest to build a new society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Since the 2019 blackouts, water access has become more and more problematic in Venezuela. This has led to new forms of cooperation amongst those affected. (@OrlenysOV)

Right now, there is a great deal of demoralization in Venezuela regarding the attempt to achieve socialism. However, just as there can be “uncritical enthusiasm” there can also be “uncritical demoralization.” You once appealed to Alan Badiou’s contrast between defeats that are inglorious and those that can continue to inspire us. While there is a great deal that hasn’t worked out here, some things have worked and it’s important to remember them and study them. Also, it’s necessary to distinguish between defects that are possibly transitory “birthmarks of the old society” (to use Marx’s words) and more serious errors or deviations.

Uncritical demoralization is a predictable outcome of uncritical enthusiasm. It is a product of believing that socialism will fall from the sky rather than recognizing that there always was and continues to be a process of struggle. In the case of Venezuela, it flows from the belief that Chavez was going to deliver socialism to the people. In November 2012 shortly after Chavez’s reelection, I was interviewed by a Serbian newspaper [Novosti] which asked me to evaluate the prospects at that time, and I think it is useful to reproduce what I said then:

“It is important to recognize there are many contradictions within Chavism. There are three groups and tendencies within Chavism. One can be found at the base with the social movements, the communities and portions of the working class. Another is composed of those individuals and groups that have risen with Chavez but, having enriched themselves through their positions and through the continuation of corruption and clientalism, now think the revolution should be over – and it is for them. (They are often referred to as the “boli-bourgeoisie.”) A third group is committed to continuing the revolution but doing so entirely from the top down; its perspective is one of ordering the advance of socialism, and it does not want to leave decisions at the bottom. While Chavez himself is very vocal about the theoretical importance of building at the base and allowing people to develop their capacities through their own protagonism, he is impatient and often supports those who don’t have the same orientation.

What will happen in the next term of office of Chavez? That depends on class struggle within the Chavez camp. It would be struggle which revolves around Chavez’s party (PSUV) which contains all these elements but in which the top-down orientation has dominated and at the same time dispirited many people at the base. Assuming Chavez continues in good health, it is possible that the revolution will be deepened at the base through his initiatives”.

Well, we know the direction that Chavez wanted to go. One month later, he brought together his cabinet and delivered a powerful critique of them as well as his own autocritique. In “Golpe de Timon” [“Strike at the Helm”], he insisted upon the need to change direction. Rather than continuing to clamor in the desert, it was time to act, time to build the commune – the soul of the entire project. And, he warned his ministers that if we fail to change direction, we would not only be liquidated – we would be the liquidators ourselves. ¡Comuna o nada! [Commune or nothing!].

Sadly, Chavez died shortly after, and liquidators have been left with governmental power. Given the contradictions within the Chavista camp that were always present, it is not entirely clear whether his attempt to shift the rudder would have been successful. It certainly would not have been successful if he were trying to do it himself. The people at the base were always the necessary part of the equation. And they continue to be in his absence. Despite the enormous array of obstacles (among them, the external blockade by imperialism, the internal blockade by a demoralized and privatizing government, and the decay of the oil industry and state sectors as the result of top-down idiocy), the commune lives.

To the extent that individual communes are able to go beyond the struggle for their own existence to build a network, the new state from below advances and can inspire us and others at the base not in defeat but with its progress. The pandemic and the shortage of resources present a serious challenge for all Venezuelans, but times of crisis can also bring out what is always latent in human interaction – solidarity, cooperation, care, and reciprocity. Fostering those would continue Chavez’s project.

A group of communards opens a new path to reach the coffee fields at the Che Guevara Commune. (Che Guevara Commune/Sinco)