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By John Bellamy Foster
Monthly Review – April 2015
On October 20, 2012, less than two weeks after being reelected to his fourth term as Venezuelan president and only months before his death, Hugo Chávez delivered his crucial El Golpe de Timón (“Strike at the Helm”) speech to the first meeting of his ministers in the new revolutionary cycle.1 Chávez surprised even some of his strongest supporters by his insistence on the need for changes at the top in order to promote an immediate leap forward in the creation of what is referred to as “the communal state.” This was to accelerate the shift of power to the population that had begun with the formation of the communal councils (groupings of families involved in self-governance projects—in densely populated urban areas, 200–400 families; in rural areas, 50–100 families). The main aim in the new revolutionary cycle, he insisted, was to speed up the registration of communes, the key structure of the communal state. In the communes, residents in geographical areas smaller than a city unite in a number of community councils with the object of self-governance through a communal parliament, constructed on participatory principles. The communes are political-economic-cultural structures engaged in such areas as food production, food security, housing, communications, culture, communal exchange, community banking, and justice systems. All of this had been legally constituted by the passage of the Organic Laws of Popular Power in 2010, including, most notably, the Organic Law of the Communes and the Organic Law of the Communal Economic System.
Chávez’s “Strike at the Helm” speech, which insisted on the rapid construction of communes, was to be one of the most important and memorable speeches of his career. It offers the key to the past, present, and future of the Venezuelan revolution. More than that, it presents us with new insights into the whole question of the transition to socialism in the twenty-first century.2
In March 2011, when I was the sole U.S. participant in a small group of socialist intellectuals from the Americas and Europe invited to Caracas to confer with the country’s top ministers on the future of the Bolivarian Revolution, it was already apparent that the full implementation of Venezuela’s 2010 “Organic Law of the Commons,” the most crucial enactment of the revolution, faced major obstacles.3 Although there were thousands of communal councils there were as yet no registered communes—the larger territorial organizations of which communal councils were to form a part, and which would represent the real basis for popular power. Nor at that point, during a presidential election cycle that was to determine the future of the Bolivarian Revolution, was it easy to move forward in this respect. Indeed, there was clearly considerable confusion at the ministerial level around the question of how the establishment of the communes, the most important element in the revolutionary process, would be accomplished, if at all.4
Hence, it was a historic moment when Chávez in his October 2012 speech crossed this Rubicon. He insisted on a full-scale socialist political transformation, with the intention of decisively shifting political power to the people, and by that means making the revolution irreversible. In addressing the communes in his “Strike at the Helm” speech, Chávez commenced by referring to István Mészáros’s Beyond Capital, not only in order to lay down certain basic principles, but also with the aim of once again urging those engaged in the Bolivarian Revolution to study Mészáros’s analysis, as the most developed and strategic theory of socialist transition:
Here I have a [book written by] István Mészáros, chapter XIX called “The Communal System and the Law of Value.” There is a sentence that I underlined a while ago, I am going to read it to you, ministers and vice president, speaking of the economy, of economic development, speaking of the social impulses of the revolution: “The yardstick,” says Mészáros, “of socialist achievements is the extent to which the adopted measures and policies actively contribute to the constitution and deep-rooted consolidation of a substantively democratic…mode of overall social control and self-management.”
Therefore we arrive at the issue of democracy. Socialism is in its essence truly democratic, while, on the other hand, there is capitalism: quintessentially anti-democratic and exclusive, the imposition of capital by the capitalist elite. But socialism is none of these things, socialism liberates; socialism is democracy and democracy is socialism, in politics, the social sphere, and in economics.5
Presenting an age-old principle of revolutionary theory, associated most famously with Marx, Chávez argued: “It must always be this way: first the political revolution, political liberation and then economic revolution. We must maintain political liberation and from that point the political battle is a permanent one, the cultural battle, the social battle.”6 The problem of a transition to socialism was then, first of all, a political one: creating an alternative popular, participatory, protagonist base. Only then could changes in economics, production, and property take place. This new popular base of power had to have equivalent power in the organization of what Mészáros called the necessary “social metabolic reproduction” to that of capital itself, displacing the latter. It needed, in Chávez’s words, to “form part of a systematic plan, of something new, like a network…a network that works like a gigantic spider’s web covering the new territory.” Indeed, “if it didn’t work this way,” he insisted, “it would all be doomed to fail; it would be absorbed by the old system, which would swallow it up, because capitalism is an enormous amoeba, it is a monster.” (Continued)
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By Marta Harnecker, translated by Federico Fuentes
[Paper presented at the International Scientific Academic Meeting on Methodology and Experiences in Socio-environmental Participatory processes, Cuenca University, November 13-15, 2014.*]
December 19, 2014 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — These words are aimed at those who want to build a humanist and solidarity-based society. A society based on the complete participation of all people. A society focused on a model of sustainable development that satisfies people’s genuine needs in a just manner, and not the artificial wants created by capitalism in its irrational drive to obtain more profits. A society that does all this while ensuring that humanity’s future in not put at risk. A society where the organized people are the ones who decide what and how to produce. A society we have referred to as Twenty-First Century Socialism, Good Living or Life in Plenitude.
The question is how can we achieve this complete participation? How can we guarantee as much as possible that all citizens, and not just activists or leftists, take an interest in participation? How can we achieve the participation of middle class sectors alongside popular sectors? How can we ensure that solidarian interests prevail over selfish ones? How can we attend to the concerns of the poorest and most forgotten and repay the social debt inherited by previous governments?
I am convinced that it is through what we have called “decentralized participatory planning” that we can achieve these objectives. We have reached this conclusion not on the basis of reading books and academic debates, but through the study of practical experiences of participatory budgets and participatory planning, primarily in Brazil, Venezuela and the Indian state of Kerala.
We were very attracted to the experience of participatory budgeting undertaken by the regional Workers’ Party government in Porto Alegre, Brazil, because we saw it as a new, transparent, rather than corrupt, way of governing, that delegated power to the people.
In Venezuela, we got a strong sense of how the popular subject was strengthened through the initiative taken by Chávez to promote the creation of communal councils and his decision to grant them resources for small projects. This was not done in a populist manner, with the state coming in to satisfy the community’s demand; rather it occurred after a process of participatory planning where the citizens of the community implemented what he called “the communal cycle”, which involved the following actions: diagnosis, elaboration of a plan and budget, execution of the project, and control over how it was carried out.
Lastly, our work was been greatly enhanced by what we learnt from one of the first experiences in the world of “decentralized participatory planning” that occurred in the Indian state of Kerala. There, a communist government decided to carry out an important process of decentralization, not only of monetary resources, but also material and human resources, to aid with the implementation of local development plans that were based on the active participation of local residents. The end result of this has been a more egalitarian economic development when compared to the rest of India, and a growth in resident’s self-esteem and self-confidence. This type of decentralization allowed for greater local government autonomy when it came to planning their development, which facilitated the progress of a much more effective participatory planning.
The type of planning we advocate is the antithesis of the centralized planning implemented under the Soviet Union. In the old USSR, it was thought that to coordinate all efforts towards building a new society, a central authority was required to decide objectives and means. It was a process in which decisions were always made from above, on many occasions without taking into consideration that down below was where people best knew the problems and possible solutions.
Similarly, often processes that claim to be participatory limit themselves to being processes of simple consultation. Rather than promoting a process of decision-making by citizens, local politicians limit themselves to consulting citizens. The people in the local area are called upon to participate in working groups where they are asked to point out their main priorities for public works and services for their respective communities. A technical team collects these and it is the technicians and not the people who decided upon which projects to implement. We don’t deny that a willingness to listen to people represents a step forward, but it is very limited.
We advocate a more integral process in which it is the people who genuinely discuss and decide upon their priorities, elaborate, where possible, their own projects and carry them out if they are in the condition to do so without having to depend on superior levels. We seek to fully involve citizens in the planning process, which is why we refer to it as participatory planning.
To achieve complete citizen’s participation we must take the plans of small localities as our starting point, where conditions are more favorable for peoples’ participation, and apply the principle that everything that can be done at a lower level should be decentralized to this level, and only keeping as competencies of higher up levels those tasks that cannot be carried out at a lower level. This principle is referred to as subsidiarity.
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Venezuela’s president Nicolas Maduro with Marta Harnecker at the award ceremony.
The speech was given by Marta Harnecker on August 15, 2014, accepting the 2013 Liberator’s Prize for Critical Thought, awarded for her book, A World to Build: New Paths towards Twenty-first Century Socialism; translated by Federico Fuentes
By Marta Harnecker
August 24, 2014 – I completed this book one month after the physical disappearance of President Hugo Chávez, without whose intervention in Latin America this book could not have been written. Many of the ideas I raise in it are related in one way or another to the Bolivarian leader, to his ideas and actions, within Venezuela and at the regional and global level. Nobody can deny that there is a huge difference between the Latin America that Chávez inherited and the Latin America he has left for us today.
That is why I dedicated the book to him with the following words:
To Commandante Chavez, whose words, orientations and exemplary dedication to the cause of the poor will serve as a compass for his people and all the people of the world. It will be the best shield to defend ourselves from those that seek to destroy this marvellous work that he began to build.
When Chávez won the 1998 presidential elections, the neoliberal capitalist model was already foundering. The choice then was whether to re-establish this model, undoubtedly with some changes such as greater concern for social issues, but still motivated by the same logic of profit-seeking, or to go ahead and try to build another model. Chávez had the courage to take the second path and decided to call it “socialism”, in spite of its negative connotations. He called it “21st century socialism,” to differentiate it from the Soviet-style socialism that had been implemented in the 20th century. This was not about “falling into the errors of the past”, into the same “Stalinist deviations” which bureaucratised the party and ended up eliminating popular participation.
The need for peoples’ participation was one of his obsessions and was the feature that distinguished his proposals from other socialist projects in which the state resolved all the problems and the people received benefits as if they were gifts.
He was convinced that socialism could not be decreed from above, that it had to be built with the people. And he also understood that protagonistic participation is what allows people to grow and achieve self-confidence, that is, to develop themselves as human beings.
I always remember the first program of “Theoretical Aló Presidente”, which was broadcasted on June 11, 2009, when Chavez quoted at length from a letter that Peter Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist, wrote to Lenin on March 4, 1920:
Without the participation of local forces, without an organization from below of the peasants and workers themselves, it is impossible to build a new life.
It seemed that the soviets were going to fulfil precisely this function of creating an organization from below. But Russia has already become a Soviet Republic in name only. The party’s influence over people … has already destroyed the influence and constructive energy of this promising institution – the soviets.
That is why very early on I believed it necessary to distinguish between the socialist project and a model. I understood project to mean the original ideas of Marx and Engels, and model to refer to one form that this project has historically taken. If we analysis Soviet-style socialism, we see that in those countries that implemented this model of socialism, one that Michael Lebowitz has recently called the socialism of conductors and conducted based on a vanguardist mode of production, the people were no longer the protagonist, organs of popular participation were transformed into purely formal entities, and the party was transformed into an absolute authority, the sole depositary of truth that controlled all activities: economic, political, cultural. That is, what should have been a popular democracy was transformed into a dictatorship of the party. This model of socialism, that many have called “real socialism” is a fundamentally statist, centralist, bureaucratic model, where the key missing factor is popular participation.
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Schafik Handal, Hugo Chávez, Fidel Castro and Evo Morales, in Havana in 2004
By Roger Burbach
Telesur, July 1, 2014
Something remarkable has taken place in Latin America in the new millennium. For the first time since the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, radical left governments have come to power in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, raising the banner of socialism. The decline of the US empire, the eruption of anti-neoliberal social movements, and the growing integration of the region on its own terms have created a space for the rejuvenation of socialism after the dramatic setbacks of the last century. Cuba is part of this transformative process as its leadership moves to update the country’s economy while the Cuban people experience new freedoms.
In what follows, the theoretical debates and the praxis of socialism in the twenty-first-century socialism will be explored. The intent is not to provide a singular theory of the new socialism, but to put forth some of the interpretations of the contemporary struggles that are taking place in Latin America.
Theories of Twenty-First-Century Socialism
Drawing on the wide-ranging discussions of twenty-first-century socialism taking place in the hemisphere, political theorist Marta Harnecker, who served as an informal adviser to Hugo Chavez, outlines five key components of what constitutes socialism. First, socialism is “the development of human beings,” meaning that “the pursuit of profit” needs to be replaced by “a logic of humanism and solidarity, aimed at satisfying human needs.” Secondly, socialism “respects nature and opposes consumerism – our goal should not be to live ‘better’ but to live ‘well,”’ as the Andean indigenous cultures declare. Thirdly, borrowing from the radical economics professor Michael Lebowitz, Harnecker says, socialism establishes a new “dialectic of production/distribution/consumption, based on: a) social ownership of the means of production, and b) social production organized by the workers in order to c) satisfy communal needs.” Fourthly, “socialism is guided by a new concept of efficiency that both respects nature and seeks human development.” Fifthly, there is a need for the “rational use of the available natural and human resources, thanks to a decentralized participatory planning process” that is the opposite of Soviet hyper-centralized bureaucratic planning.(1)
To construct a socialist utopia along these lines will be a long endeavor, taking decades and generations. Today different explorations, or counter-hegemonic processes, are at work throughout the hemisphere. As Arturo Escobar – a Colombian-American anthropologist known for his contribution to post-development theory– writes in ‘Latin America at a Crossroads’:
“Some argue that these processes might lead to a re-invention of socialism; for others, what is at stake is the dismantling of the neo-liberal policies of the past three decades – the end of the ‘the long neo-liberal night,’ as the period is known in progressive circles in the region – or the formation of a South American (and anti-American) bloc. Others point at the potential for un nuevo comienzo (a new beginning) which might bring about a reinvention of democracy and development or, more radically still, the end of the predominance of liberal society of the past 200 years founded on private property and representative democracy. Socialismo del siglo XXI, pluri-nationality, interculturality, direct and substantive democracy, revolución ciudadana, endogenous development centered on the buen vivir of the people, territorial and cultural autonomy, and decolonial projects towards post-liberal societies are some of the concepts that seek to name the ongoing transformations.” (2)
Orlando Núñez, a leading Marxist theorist from Nicaragua, amplifies our understanding of the long transition to socialism with a more orthodox approach. Rejecting 21st century socialism as a concept to describe what is occurring in Latin America today, he asserts that the region is in a very preliminary phase of “transitioning to socialism in which we should not pretend we are constructing socialism.” Rather we are confronting neoliberalism and each country in Latin America is “facing different conditions.” He adds, “new flags are appearing in the social struggle against the dominant system that cannot be resolved by the logic of capitalism.” It is “a post-neoliberal or post-capitalist struggle” against woman’s inequality and patriarchy, racial and ethnic discrimination, and the degradation of the environment. More fundamentally it is against “savage capitalism,” and “neo-colonialism,” both internally and externally. (3)
The Brazilian political scientist Emir Sader, in The New Mole: Paths of the Latin American Left, argues that the setback for socialism in the 20th century was so severe that it is still recuperating to this day. Socialism can be part of the agenda, but the priority must be on forming governments and political coalitions to dismantle neoliberalism, even if that means accepting the broader capitalist system for the time being.(4) This in part explains why the construction of socialism in the coming years and decades will be a diverse process – differing widely from country to country. There is no single definition or model–we are indeed witnessing, two, three, many transitions to socialism..
Part 2: Rise of the Social Movements and New Theories of Social Struggle
The origins of twenty-first century socialism are found in the wave of social movements led by peasants and indigenous organizations that swept the rural areas of Latin America as state socialism was collapsing. By the mid-1990s they had assumed the lead in challenging the neoliberal order, particularly in Ecuador, Mexico, Bolivia, and Brazil. These new organizations were generally more democratic and participatory than the class-based organizations that traditional Marxist political parties had set up in rural areas in previous decades. In general, they came to fill the gap left by a working class that was fragmented, disoriented, and dispersed due to the assault of neo-liberalism. With a broad range of interests and demands, including indigenous and environmental rights, these new social movements transcended the modernist meta-narratives of both capitalism and traditional socialism.
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By Michael Lebowitz
March 2014 — Monthly Review — It is now one year since the unfortunate death of Hugo Chávez on March 5, 2013. Shortly after, the editors of Monthly Review quoted a letter from István Mészáros to John Bellamy Foster which described Chávez as “one of the greatest historical figures of our time” and “a deeply insightful revolutionary intellect” (“Notes from the Editors” in the May 2013 Monthly Review). Whether Chávez will be remembered over time this way, however, depends significantly on whether we build upon the foundations he began.
As important as his vision and his deep understanding of the necessary path (so clearly demonstrated by his focus upon communal councils as the basis of a new socialist state—“the most vital revolutionary achievement in these years,” as the editors indicated) was Chávez’s ability to communicate both vision and theory in a clear and simple way to the masses. As demonstrated by Chávez’s articulation of the concept of “the elementary triangle of socialism,” that is what revolutionaries must learn to do.
Following Marta Harnecker’s long interview with Chávez (later published as Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution by Monthly Review Press), he asked her to come to Venezuela in 2003 to serve as his advisor and explained that he wanted someone around him who would not hesitate to criticize him. And that’s how we ended up in Venezuela. At the beginning of 2004, I became an adviser to the Minister of the Social Economy and, during that year, Marta and I became convinced that it would be important to create a center which could bring together foreign advisors who supported the Bolivarian Revolution. Accordingly, she proposed to Chávez that an institute be established for this purpose; he agreed, and, after we assembled people and found a home for the Institute (ultimately in the Ministry of Higher Education), the Centro Internacional Miranda (CIM) was formed in early 2006.
Since it was clear that Chávez would be re-elected in December and would be thinking seriously about directions for the new mandate, those of us involved in CIM decided to prepare a series of papers proposing initiatives which we felt could advance the process of building socialism in Venezuela. Although several of us engaged in these discussions, ultimately only three of the CIM directors (Marta Harnecker, Haiman El Troudi, and I) completed papers for transmission to Chávez in early December. In what follows, I include an excerpt from one paper I prepared plus a second paper subsequently developed in response to Chávez’s reaction to the first.1
Everyone understands that it is impossible to achieve the vision of socialism for the twenty-first century in one giant leap forward. It is not simply a matter of changing property ownership. This is the easiest part of building the new world. Far more difficult is changing productive relations, social relations in general, and attitudes and ideas.