News and opinions on the situation in Venezuela
Venezuela: building a social model that avoids the Marxist errors of the past by Hector Dauphin-Gloire
VHeadline.com reader Hector Dauphin-Gloire writes: This letter is being written in response to the commentary of Mr. Franz Lee regarding www.vheadline.com/readnews.asp?id=33246 his view of the incompatibility of socialism and Christianity and his belief that the Bolivarian Revolution must take a more orthodox Marxist tack.
Before offering my opinion let me make clear that I am a North American currently working in rural development in an African village … a long time ideological supporter of the Bolivarian Revolution and other causes of the Left … and a frequent letter writer to this journal, VHeadline.com.
Let me begin by stressing that I believe wholeheartedly in President Chavez and his Revolution … but. I fear that by his invocation of Marxism — and by the occasional Marxist flavored comments which have occasionally been made in this journal — a great historical chance is being jeopardized … the chance to create a new kind of post Marxist socialism, one based on decentralization, worker’s cooperatives, and a truly moral and spiritual, as opposed to coldly rationalist, historical materialist, road to social justice.
The roots to this new, 21st century socialism, in the words of Chavez himself, are not some foreign import of naive Western intellectuals but are already present in his own vision, in the beliefs of his loyal followers, and deep in South America’s triple cultural heritage … in the harmonious Ayllu system of the Andes, in the African traditions of communal responsibility and sharing which I have been privileged to witness firsthand, in the organic corporatism of the Catholic Iberia.
In combination these three traditions make possible the emergence in South America of a truly fraternal, spiritually rich, free and equal socialism of the future which rejects both the tired capitalism and centralized state socialism of the past.
But for this to take place it is necessary that we not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Specifically … in contrast to Mr. Lee … I would argue that for the Revolution to succeed — and succeed it must, for like the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, all the world’s hopes for sociali justice in the future are riding on Venezuela right now — Chavez must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of central planning, of fiscally unsustainable government intervention, and of hostility to religion that tarnished the Marxist regimes of the past.
The system that is being built in Venezuela right now looks like it is carefully trying to avoid one of the Marxist errors of the past … the overly hasty and sweeping nationalization of the means of production.
In a society as fiercely unjust and unequal as Fourth Republic Venezuela, it is absolutely necessary that the rich be cut down to size, and that their latifundias, companies, and factories be taken away and placed under a more socially responsible and equitable form of ownership.
No one deserves such great wealth especially surrounded by fierce poverty, for as St. Augustine has written, all great wealth is the record of great robberies, if not by oneself than by one’s forefathers.
But to immediately redistribute all this wealth in the name of justice would so disturb the economy and productivity that it would be, in the short term, a remedy worse than the disease … and people live only in the short term, as Keynes observed.
Consider the record of overly hasty nationalizations followed by economic stagnation in any number of socialist African countries … in Tanzania, in Angola, in Mozambique.
As always, care and caution should be key.
As yet, the Chavez government has expropriated few properties, and all on inarguably legal grounds — the Venepal paper company which was going bankrupt, the Vestey farm which lacked appropriate legal title.
Venezuela should begin by turning over to the people only those farms, factories and businesses for which there is particular legal cause for intervention.
If they are not being productive, take them;
if they are managed by openly treasonous and lawbreaking owners — i.e. much of the official Venezuelan opposition — then take them (as France did to companies like Renault, owned by Nazi collaborators, in 1945);
These measures have all been accepted by a wide variety of socialist and non-socialist regimes alike in the last century; they will deliver a big chunk of the economy into the hands of worker’s cooperatives, and the process of building socialist structures can begin.
Other enterprises may remain for the time being under inequitable, capitalist management; that’s to be expected, justice can’t come overnight, and it is not worth disrupting the economy by expropriating everything.
Slow and steady wins the proverbial race; let foreign investment and productive domestic entrepreneurs continue adding to the economy, with some state regulation and taxation in the name of social justice, in the faith that they will not be seized any time soon, for they currently play an indispensable part of the economy. They too will become obsolete, but that may take 50 years or more.
And when companies are intervened, there should be some compensation, and entrepreneurs should in some cases be allowed to stay on as managers or technocrats.
Both of these policies were offered by Fidel Castro to the Cuban bourgeoisie in the early 1960s, although of course most of them preferred to flee to Miami and plot the downfall of Cuba.
Chavez is already following a careful path in this regard, so I don’t have much to warn against.
A greater challenge is how enterprises are to be managed once they are seized and their private capitalist ownership expropriated. In spite of the success of state enterprises like PDVSA, Petrobras, Pemex (three of Latin America’s top companies), of nationalized industries in France and England, and of a highly productive nationalized agriculture in Hungary, the general record of direct state ownership of the economy is not encouraging.
The most successful socialist regimes have been those that allowed independent worker’s cooperatives to emerge, or that allowed an important role for the free market in the economy — Hungary after the 1960s, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Allende’s Chile, Vietnam or China after 1980.
There are also a lot of examples of very successful worker’s or peasants’ cooperatives, running on egalitarian and democratic principles, in non-socialist countries … the Mondragon group in Spain, in Cardenista Mexico, in Denmark, in Israel.
There are many reasons for this — the inability of state bureaucracy to keep track of supply and demand information, the dissatisfaction of workers with a remote state bureaucracy as boss; the danger of mistaken state policies sinking the whole economy, the lack of market incentives; but there are two important theoretical reasons, quite apart from practical questions, why even staunch Marxists should not be against the market economy.
First of all, market vs. planning argument is entirely separate from the question of socialist vs. capitalist ownership — the market economy is ancient, characterizing most of human history, while capitalism is relatively recent.
Capitalism is defined by one group of people contributing capital to the economy, and another group providing labor (and other factors like the drive to profit and accumulation, but let’s ignore that for now).
If the two are fused, as in a syndicalist system of worker’s cooperatives, then regardless of whether the economy is free-market or planned, it isn’t capitalist anymore.
Given that, Marx devoted much of his great work to deploring how workers in capitalist society don’t have control over their workplace … but from that point of view, how is working for a remote state bureaucracy any more liberating?
The only system that really gives individuals power over their own work is syndicalism, ‘co-management’, decentralized socialism, whatever you call it — the same way of socialism that Chavez is trying to introduce right now.
Yugoslavia achieved great success under the system of worker’s self-management, avoiding the low productivity of the Eastern Bloc and the great social inequality of the West; the Yarur textile factory in Chile was highly productive after its employees took it over under Allende. Vietnam, China and Cuba have achieved great strides in agricultural productivity since peasants were allowed to sell produce at market prices.
Obviously the free market always carries a risk of increasing inequality, but if it’s managed and taxed correctly, this can be limited.
Vietnam still has a very low measure of social inequality compared to other countries, even after its liberalization, so did Yugoslavia; market socialism may allow more inequality than planned socialism, but it’s still much more egalitarian than capitalism.
It seems as though Venezuela is already beginning to proceed towards worker-owned cooperatives and this is a trend that should be encouraged. The paper company Venepal is already under cooperative ownership and the insistence of the government that all companies that receive state financing should accept partial worker co-management; the rural land reform is also going to involve small individual proprietors and cooperatives … not state ownership.
These are all steps in the right direction … and will help to build in Venezuela a social model that avoids the Marxist errors of the past.
It is also consonant with the decentralizing Leftist movements that are in power or close to coming to power elsewhere in the continent: the MST in Brazil (who believe in cooperative farming and an explicitly Catholic personalist ideology), the government of what still calls itself the Cooperative Republic of Guyana, the movement of Quispe and Morales in Bolivia, within a hairsbreadth of the presidency, which promises to restore the great glory days of the Inca Empire, when society provided for the needs of all its members and each member was responsible to work for the good of society.
th century has always been not for capitalism, but for corporatism: a society in which the necessity and place of each social group (peasants, artisans, factory workers, miners, managers, intellectuals, soldiers) is recognized, in which each sector works not for its own good but for the common good, and in which a strong authoritative State coordinates the sectors and ensures that each obtains the rights and performs the obligations associated with it.
Corporatism has a strong appeal, even to a non-Catholic like me, as it transcends, in the name of the common good, both the narrow self interest of capitalism and the narrow class interest of Marxism.
Because of its inherent focus on obligations, solidarity and the common good, it has always been closely suited to Christian principles, and has been incorporated to some degree in a bewildering variety of regimes — by Franco and Metaxas on the Right, by moderate Social Democrats in Scandinavia, and on the revolutionary Left by Cardenas in Mexico and General Velasco in Peru, as well as by General Peron; a Hindu form of corporatism was similarly espoused by Gandhi.
The great historical error of corporatism and the reason why too often it was taken over by the right, is that if nothing is done to curb its strength then one of these sectors … the class of landowners and businessmen … is so strong that it can overpower all the others and negate any responsibility to the common good.
But in Venezuela, if it is combined with the left-wing policy of the government to empower workers and replace large scale private ownership with cooperatives, co-managed enterprises, and small businesses, then a truly fair and spiritual corporatism can develop — call it, perhaps, Corporatist Syndicalism, or Christian Socialism.
Christian socialists played an important role in the Peruvian revolutionary regime, in the leftist coalitions that once ruled Chile and Nicaragua, all over Africa, in the Argentine Montonero movement, in the struggle for the rights of the landless in Brazil.