The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 81 (Spring 2008).

Venezuelan Workers and the Referendum

No to Chávez, Yes to Socialism!

With this article we continue our discussion of the working class political scene in Venezuela. We invite comments from readers. References to all quoted citations are available upon request.

February 18, 2008

The class conflict at the heart of Venezuelan society is breaking through the Bolivarian façade. The working class has rejected the overtly pro-imperialist neo-liberal program of the rightist opposition. But for good reason, working people and the poor are growing more dissatisfied with President Hugo Chávez and his policies.

This sentiment led to mass abstention on a referendum pushed by Chávez this past December. The number of votes that Chávez traditionally counted on dropped so much that the No vote ended up winning narrowly. The opposition claimed victory over Chávez, but in reality they can’t take credit since their campaign against the referendum resulted in no significant increase in No votes.

This significant shift in the voting pattern occurred just a year after Chávez had won re-election in a landslide victory in December 2006. Yet in December 2007, approximately 45 percent of his usual base abstained – in a referendum which he claimed was the way forward to socialism. The LRP favored a No vote, which we will explain in this article.

The referendum proposed a large number of amendments to the constitution, which had to be voted up or down in two different blocks. Block A consisted of 33 articles, mainly put together up by a commission appointed by Chávez which met in secret with no public debate during the process. Block B contained 36 additional articles approved by the National Assembly. Each block included amendments meant to appeal to the working class – like reduction of the work day and extension of social security benefits. However, Chávez already had plenty of time, power, and mass support to carry out such reforms without a special referendum. The proposed changes were in this referendum for a reason: they were the carrot that would lure the masses to vote for a very big stick.

Concentration of Presidential Power

Had the referendum passed, it would not just have increased Chávez’s ability to retain office longer (notably, only the president would have had the right to be reelected continually). The right to freedom of information would have been more easily eliminated by a declaration of emergency, and such declarations could be of unlimited duration. During a state of emergency citizens could be detained without charge. Also, the president would have been empowered to reorganize the boundaries of cities, provinces and regions. Another proposal gave the president new powers to declare special military zones and regions and name military authorities for the regions, as well as the power to promote officers. All this would have strengthened the weapons of the capitalist state for future use against the working class.

Along this line of anti-worker attacks, another clause would have changed the definition of public workers, raising concerns that this significant labor sector would lose legal protections. Other proposals would have increased the percentages of voters required to put a referendum on the ballot, whether for a recall, constitutional amendments or a constituent assembly.

There were also amendments that would have constitutionally bolstered the operation of communal councils, labor councils, and the like, all of which were to be funded and registered by the national government. The councils are intended to pre-empt mass struggle organs of workers, peasants and other sectors from arising, in addition to the already existing unions.

The “communal councils” already exist and are supposedly evidence of “people’s power.” The funds allotted to these councils come directly from the Presidential Commission for Communal Power. They amounted to about 1.6 billion dollars last year and about 3 billion dollars this year. These councils are mainly being used along the lines of participatory democracy schemes in Brazil, Bolivia and elsewhere: local residents are given pre-set budgets for limited local projects. At best they are a way to divert the masses from taking on real decision-making and power, but in reality they usually function as transmission belts for the politics of the ruling regime. It does not appear that Chávez has been very successful in getting the labor councils off the ground yet, because of fears that they would be used for anti-union purposes. Passage of the referendum could have aided that effort.

Roots of Bonapartism

Chávez argued that he is uniquely endowed with the ability to make decisions for the good of the masses. Much of the left that defended the referendum bought that line. It is a hallmark of Bonapartism, a regime characterized by strongman rule with power concentrated in an executive who appears to rule independently above the main contending classes of society. But in fact the Chávez regime, like all Bonapartists, represents capitalist interests and therefore its repression is aimed primarily at the working class, when push comes to shove. Ignoring this essential Marxist understanding, much of the left also swallowed Chávez’s argument that increased concentration of the armed power of the bourgeois state would be used only against the right-wing opposition.

Most post-mortems on December missed an essential point: the bold attempt to enhance Chávez’s power was a real necessity for this regime. Chávez is a populist: he promotes class collaboration by making big promises to the masses that he will represent their interests if they stick with him, and he seems to favor mass involvement in society. But populists like Chávez also argue for promoting good capitalists against bad ones, not for class struggle. Populist rulers inevitably become increasingly Bonapartist, since they cannot actually fulfill mass expectations. Eventually the mass mobilizations that they encouraged in order to gain power threaten to undermine their rule.

Chávez’s dilemma is this: the masses are dissatisfied, but he does not have much more to offer them besides token improvements plus “red” rhetoric – dangling huge promises (i.e. “socialism”) for the future. His bourgeois development scheme means cultivating a privileged wing of the weak domestic capitalist class. Building up Venezuelan capitalism also requires maneuvers with the majority of capitalists who are tied to the right-wing opposition and the imperialists. Chávez adheres to a policy of bourgeois nationalism and peaceful coexistence with Venezuela’s imperialist oppressors, all his socialist rhetoric to the contrary. But even making minor gains for a capitalist Venezuela in that context requires a complicated balancing act. It is now economically impossible to continue appeasing the masses as well as the domestic bourgeoisie and imperialism. The failure of this project is behind the glaring economic woes today.

Even under near-optimal circumstances with high oil profits, Chávez has been unable to dramatically change the quality of life for the masses. This is impossible for any capitalist state, and all oppressed capitalist nations, like Venezuela, are bound to be dominated by imperialism in this epoch.

A perfect example of his policy toward imperialism is the current struggle between Chávez and Exxon-Mobil over the terms of a proposed joint venture in the oil-rich Orinoco Belt region. It is a question of the degree of superexploitation. For all his rhetorical threats, Chávez has made it clear that he will break no other existing business deals with Exxon-Mobil and will only utilize legal, i.e. imperialist sanctioned, means to defend Venezuelan interests. The last thing that he wants is to mobilize the willing ranks of the working class into an actual fight against imperialist holdings in Venezuela.

It is the duty of revolutionary workers to defend all oppressed nations against imperialist attack. But no sector of the national bourgeoisie of oppressed nations is capable of defending the masses against imperialism, since they are themselves incapable of breaking with imperialist domination. Revolutionary workers must also tell our fellow workers the truth about this: the working class itself must unite with all the downtrodden for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. The basic need is to replace the capitalist state, the state of bourgeois rule, with a workers’ state, where the working class will rule. By building their international vanguard party, the most class-conscious workers will lead the fight for socialist revolution not only in one nation but internationally. The idea of building socialism in one country is a fraud. A federation of workers’ states is the necessary step for abolishing class society and scarcity. This is Trotsky’s strategy of permanent revolution, and it is the only way to end imperialism and really answer the hopes of humanity.

Chávez is clearly weaker after the referendum, but he still is tremendously popular – in contrast to any contending leader or party in Venezuela at this time. He has amassed tremendous power, including the power to rule by decree. Using this authority, he caused much grief among his mass base when he granted amnesty on January 3 to opposition leaders tied to the imperialist-backed military coup against his government in 2002. Another presidential decree on January 18 turned the operation of the Caracas police force over to the national government. This transfer is the opening stage of a proposed National Police Law, which will place all municipal and state police forces under the national government.

State Maneuvers Against Workers

In Chávez vs. Working Class (PR 80) we highlighted Chávez’s attacks on union autonomy in announcing the launch of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela). The PSUV welcomed “socialist” business and military leaders into its fold, but demanded that unions and left organizations give up their independence in order to join. Getting the referendum passed would have been a great asset for force-feeding a program and rules for the party, since Chávez could then have falsely claimed that he was carrying out a popular mandate. He wants to make the PSUV into a big authoritarian party that could operate as a disciplining agent, repressing dissension from workers and the left.

It is obvious that his model in large part is the Communist Party of Cuba. It is no accident that the PSUV project had a Disciplinary Committee from the start and has even started expelling members, even though it is still a party in formation without any official program or statutes! Contrast the scene that Chávez faces today with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Castro was able over time to fuse his July 26th Movement with the hardened cadre of the existing Stalinist party, which had had much experience in backing the Batista dictatorship, especially within the union movement. Castro organized a new Communist Party, which was tied to the then powerful and nominally socialist Soviet Union and was an effective tool against the working class. Only after employing CP cadres to stifle the workers could Castro then take bold anti-imperialist measures like nationalization of industry.

While Chávez still retains great authority, his prestige has obviously suffered, which makes it even more apparent that he can’t summarily create a “great leap forward,” a mass party strictly following his dictates based merely on proclamations from on high. The material circumstances in Venezuela are not the same as in Cuba forty-plus years ago. And he can’t turn the small and independent Venezuelan Communist Party (which refused to enter the PSUV) into an authoritative party with masses of disciplined cadre that can control the working class.

Many leftists falsely claim that nationalization of major industry in itself signifies the existence of a workers’ state or some form of “socialist” regime. In Venezuela, Chávez has preserved a capitalist mixed economy, an alliance between state and private enterprise even within the formally state-owned oil industry. And Chávez openly opposes workers’ control or management of the industry.

Repression of Workers Continues

Repression against protesting and striking workers, discussed in our previous issue, has continued. Chávez especially fears the potential role of oil workers in Venezuelan politics – there are thousands of core workers who at great sacrifice and courage fought off the bosses’ attempted lockout for 14 months from December 2002 to February 2004. Afraid of workers’ power, Labor Minister Ramón Rivero even actively opposes the oil workers’ right to elect their own union leaders. A government appointed phony negotiating team from a newly merged union organization, FUTPV (United Oil Workers Federation of Venezuela), pushed through a bad contract in November. Workers who had tried to protest this process in Anzoategui state in September were attacked by police, with many arrested and injured; this led to an immediate work stoppage by other oil workers in the area.

The significance of the FUTPV’s negotiation of this contract goes beyond the raw economic deal: over half of the 60,000 oil workers in Venezuela had already voted to be represented by C-CURA (the United Revolutionary and Autonomous Class-Struggle Current) in the Fedepetrol federation, but the government refused to recognize this or to hold new elections.

The UNT (National Workers’ Union) was set up to be an alternative to the CTV union federation that had backed the coup and carried out the shutdown of the oil industry in 2002-2003. But the UNT itself is now permanently split – with each of the leadership groupings that co-founded it all using the same name-tag. The FSBT-UNT (Bolivarian Socialist Workers’ Force) is made up of close associates of Chávez’s government who now act in absolute cahoots with the regime to sabotage and divide labor struggles on a regular basis. They do not have a mass following of workers like C-CURA, which goes into conflict with the bosses and is obviously far more popular among militant workers.

C-CURA itself has two wings. The minority led by Orlando Chirino opposed entry into the PSUV and the recent referendum. It includes José Bodas, an important oil union leader, and has called for a “new party of workers,” which it is already calling the PAIS (Left Socialist Party) with a paper Voz de los Trabajadores. (See The majority led by Stalin Pérez Borges entered the PSUV and favored the referendum. It publishes Marea Clasista y Socialista and includes Ramón Arias, leader of Fentrasep, the public sector union that has some 1.5 million members. The Chirino and Pérez Borges wings used to jointly run the fledgling PRS (Revolutionary Socialist Party) formation. Both wings capitulated heavily to Chávez, enthusiastically campaigning for his re-election in 2006. But the PRS never had any real political life and disappeared after its majority went into the PSUV.

Having made no fundamental break with their past tradition, Chirino and his associates have been forced into a phase of opposition to Chávez. Despite its capitulations, C-CURA finds itself representing the left wing of the existing union currents. For now it seems to be maintaining some unity in action, in order to defend itself against anti-union attacks from the regime.

The government feels threatened by the militant oil workers who have tremendous objective power, despite the fact that they represent only about one percent of the workforce. They also reflect the general popularity of class-conscious demands like full nationalization of a range of industries without compensation, workers’ control and management, an end to second-class contract labor, and a sliding scale of wages and hours. A notable battle right now has been taken on by the steel workers against the Argentine-controlled Sidor Corporation. These workers have been demanding nationalization for years and are in embroiled in a contract struggle as we go to press.

Attacks on Government Workers

For further proof of the attitude of Chávez toward class struggle one needs to look no further than to the plight of his own employees, the government workers, who represent about 13 percent of the workforce. Many make no more than the minimum wage. Along with oil and steel workers, public workers have a strong tradition of unionization. The elected representatives of Fentrasep went to the Ministry of Labor last August to renegotiate the collective contract for their members, after the workers had been stalled for two and a half years without a contract. The minister refused to meet with the delegates and locked them inside a room with no food or drink for days. They were eventually attacked by a thug organization associated with the government and dislodged. The ministry to date has refused to negotiate a contract, challenging the legitimacy of the delegates by claiming there is a dispute over union election results between C-CURA and the FSBT. The latter favors a lower wage settlement.

These are two of many examples where the government uses its ministry and labor lackeys to subvert the initiative of the ranks and their right to put forward their own leadership. In a September 2007 interview, Chirino spoke about this trend not only among the oil and public workers;

In Firestone, the labor inspector ordered the company to discuss the collective agreement with a union that only represented 10%. In Mavesa Foods, they registered a union in record time, a union with 34 signatures in a body with 750 workers. In Coca-Cola, after signing a collective agreement, the labor inspector partially certified the contract, leaving 15 clauses pending. ...We state that in all these cases the work inspector acted in a perverse manner in order to favor minority groups identified with the FSBT in order to mount parallel unions. And so as to leave no doubt, the inspector herself has told the class-struggle union leaders that she has the order to string along all the unions that identify with C-CURA.

The government has also directly attacked or indirectly sabotaged small struggles of militant workers in the same vein. For one striking example, the workers at the Sincreba solid waste management company in Mérida suffered a shutdown of their plant last September, carried out by the boss with the help of local thugs and the police. They then occupied the plant and established themselves as a cooperative, attempting to run the operation for two months, while campaigning for the support of various mayors in the area as well as the local Puente Viejo Communal Council. Their initial occupation was shut down after a number of violent attacks. But they continued struggling for the goal of a permanent reopening as a state enterprise under workers’ control.

However, the Council, which had been empowered by the area mayoralties to run the plant, not only turned a blind eye to the violent attacks against these workers but refused to meet with them and finally denounced them. This anti-worker situation is what the government-sponsored councils can foster. (For Spanish language readers we recommend checking out the website, which has extensive coverage.) The heroic struggle of these workers continues, as do many similar small battles, notably that of the workers of the Sanitarios Maracay bathroom fixtures plant, who had their occupation shut down last September. They have recently managed to reopen a part of the plant.

The Mass Abstention

It is estimated that 200,000 workers actually voted against the referendum. There are many reasons why millions more who also didn’t want the referendum to pass chose abstention. No doubt worries about retaliation by the regime (loss of jobs, benefits, etc.) played a big role in making workers afraid to vote No. But the act of abstention represented not just fear. It also reflected mixed consciousness among workers about how far to go in expressing or organizing their opposition.

Over the years Chávez and his mouthpieces have effectively preached the idea that a vote for Chávez is always a vote against imperialism, and vice versa. This time as usual pro-imperialist forces dominated the opposition to Chávez. Workers not only feared that they would be punished or slandered as right-wingers; many had to wonder if a No vote really would strengthen the right opposition.

The fact that the regime even declared it illegal to campaign for abstention meant that abstention became an act of protest, but a limited and still passive and confused one. It reflected a significant shift in workers’ consciousness but not an active clear way forward.

To a large degree workers who opposed the referendum didn’t see a class alternative. Workers are tending to become bolder in their experiences of conflict with the regime and with private bosses on a local or industrial level. But most have still not drawn sharp conclusions about the basic capitalist nature of the state and Chávez himself. On one level this is because the struggles have still been kept isolated from each other; workers have not yet experienced their independent power as a class. Many still believe that Chávez and the so-called left wing of the regime can be fashioned into a tool for winning class victories and even socialism – if only the “bureaucrats,” “rightists” and “corrupt” within the government could be weeded out. Despite the remaining illusions, there is a mounting tendency for workers to want to assert themselves and generalize their struggles as a class.

The outbreak of greater class struggles is inevitable. The biggest problem in our view is that there is no vanguard party in Venezuela which can point the way forward. In December, a revolutionary vanguard would have advocated a No vote tied to an independent workers’ opposition to Chávez on an explicitly anti-imperialist basis. For one thing, it could have called for demonstrations in support of the immediate enactment of a shorter work day, expanded social security coverage, and other specific benefits promised in the referendum. For another, it could have rallied support for the contract struggles in oil, steel, the public sector, etc. It could have opposed all the repressive measures in the referendum and the politics of the reactionary opposition at the same time.

Trotsky made a key point about the need to oppose the strengthening of a bourgeois state even against the threat of fascism:

The struggle against fascism, the defense of the positions the working class has won within the framework of degenerating democracy, can become a powerful reality since it gives the working class the opportunity to prepare itself for the sharpest struggles and partially to arm itself ... to mobilize the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie on the side of the revolution, to create a workers’ militia, etc. Anyone who does not take advantage of this situation, who calls on the “state,” i.e., the class enemy, to “act,” in effect sells the proletariat’s hide to the Bonapartist reaction.

Therefore, we must vote against all measures that strengthen the capitalist-Bonapartist state, even those measures which may for the moment cause temporary unpleasantness for the fascists. (“Bourgeois Democracy and the Fight Against Fascism,” Writings 1935-6.)

Trotsky’s insistence against supporting the military build-up of any capitalist state, even against an immediate fascist threat, has relevance to Venezuela today. It argues that revolutionaries should counterpose the need for independent workers’ militias as opposed to reliance on any capitalist regime, however progressive its claims to be. Chávez has never ceased to insist that his proposals must be unequivocally supported in order to stop an imperialist inspired overthrow. While we do not believe that such a threat is real at this point, it remains true that in order to fight the threats of an imperialist intervention or coup, now or in the future, the workers must rely on their own independent power, not on Chávez. To this point, in the case of an actual imperialist threat, even then we would not support the kind of emergency decree or other Bonapartist measures that Chávez was pushing in the December referendum. The working class must never give up its independence, because only the working class can defeat imperialism.

In the current situation, the threat of an imperialist coup or takeover by the domestic right opposition has obviously receded, and Chávez has been using the relative peace on that front as an opportunity to make more deals with the right and crack down on mass struggles and aspirations at the same time. In fact, the current scene dictates the need for workers’ defense guards against the National Guard, police and thug outfits who have been attacking workers’ occupations, strikes and protests – as well as against any threat of a pro-imperialist coup from the right opposition. Workers’ political opposition to Chávez, and to this referendum in particular, must always include a commitment to mass mobilization to defend the regime against any imperialist attack. This was part of the message of class opposition to the referendum that revolutionaries needed to share with their fellow workers.

Against the Stream When Necessary

The point is not whether a working-class No vote campaign would have immediately won wide adherence. Sometimes even a small propaganda group with a bold message can tap into what workers are feeling and have influence beyond their numbers. But it is necessary to provide political leadership for the most advanced, potentially vanguard, workers, and create a working class pole of attraction – even if workers’ opposition to the referendum remained a minority movement at this particular time.

Tactically we could have favored abstention or voiding the ballot for workers in dangerous situations who could not vote No, but that had to be a very secondary matter. The main political message had to be clear: it was in our class’s interests that this referendum fail, and abstention was not a means to ensure that outcome. We totally reject any idea that voting No on behalf of the working class was a vote for the right or for imperialism. That methodology of amalgamation is what Chávez counts on every time, and such arguments will always be used to allow more power to fall into his hands – unless the initial elements of an authentic revolutionary vanguard are willing to stop living in the fear of Chávez’s shadow. It is absolutely necessary to distinguish between those times when a bloc with the regime is necessary to defeat an immediate imperialist threat or attack, and the times when blocking with the Chávez regime abets his ability to attack the working class himself and sets up the masses for more attacks from the right. The latter was the case in December.

Calling for abstention was an opportunist and irresponsible position for those concerned with defending the working class and raising its consciousness about what needs to be done. The fact that abstention indirectly resulted in a narrow defeat for Chávez could not have been assumed. The strategy of abstaining while secretly hoping for a defeat was opportunist, reflecting a fear of being amalgamated with the right opposition rather than having the courage to advocate what was necessary and risking such slanders temporarily, if necessary.

Chirino’s Abstentionism

Chirino and his associates, both in the unions and in his political tendency internationally (the UIT-CI), opposed the referendum. But they held back from calling for a No vote. Instead, they came out for a form of abstention. Here is an excerpt of the statement “Void Your Ballot” by Chirino and associates on behalf of the “Organizing Committee of the Movement for the Construction of a Workers Party,” dated November 2, 2007.

We call upon the workers to VOID YOUR BALLOTS this coming December 2, don’t mark either of the two options (YES or NO), just hit the VOTE key. This is an approach that has been raised by many workers who are afraid to be identified as abstentionists – now that the CNE [the electoral authority] has anti-democratically forbidden citizens to campaign for abstention – or who fear being fired from their jobs in government enterprises or being counterrevolutionary or reactionary for voting NO.

For revolutionary socialists it is important to express that we do not support the reform proposal, and for that reason we solidarize ourselves and we support all of those compañeros who are thinking about abstaining in a conscious form so as not to give their support to a retrograde constitutional reform, and more so with those who are disposed to take the risk of voting NO, without worrying about the manipulation and the pressures of all type that have come down on them.

Thus Chirino & Co. in passing solidarize with those workers who were bold enough to vote No. But this did not lead them to boldly call for a No vote themselves as a class policy, and they are supposed to be the leaders.

The call to void your ballots is close to the position adopted by the Juventud de Izquierda Revolucionaria (JIR: Revolutionary Left Youth), a small section of the Fracción Trotskista Cuarta Internacional (FT-CI: Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International). We focused on the work of this small far left group in Venezuela in our previous article because of their consistent opposition to political support for Chávez in past elections. As well, they have put out some honest propaganda directly exposing the nature of Venezuelan society as capitalist and denouncing the Chavista myth that there is a “revolutionary process” underway.

These positive qualities contrast with the record of left union leaders like Chirino. Chirino is in a very militant phase now. But he and the whole UIT-CI tendency have consistently told workers to vote for Chávez. There is no evidence that he has changed his tune on that. In fact, despite his current oppositional stance toward the regime, he still talks about “deepening the revolutionary process” in Venezuela. He still fails to explain definitively that Chávez heads a populist bourgeois regime which uses the pretense of a “revolutionary process” to fool workers into supporting a capitalist state. Chirino uses the same false rhetoric while demanding a big role for workers in the process.

The JIR’s Abstentionism

Our previous article, in which we criticized the JIR for tailing Chirino, should be read as background to understanding the current turn. Unfortunately the JIR has not yet chosen to respond to our correspondence to them or to our published criticism. Worse, they have followed Chirino in taking the position of abstention in the recent referendum.

Here is the gist of their argument:

We are facing a proposed Constitutional Reform that seeks to increase the range of government power, in order to regiment the class struggle and the movements of the different factions of the classes, on the road of its “socialism with businessmen.” This is supported by the bourgeois sector of owners that backs the government and receives a boost from government, while the majority sectors of the dominant class oppose the reform.

...In the present referendum, there are apparently only two choices, that of YES to the Reform that Chávez and the National Assembly are proposing, and that of NO, defended by the broad majority of the right-wing opposition sectors and minority sectors that have withdrawn from the chavista movement. ... Neither of these variants is a choice for workers, since, reformed or not, the Constitution continues defending private ownership of the means of production, that is, the regime of capitalist exploitation. Therefore, we are calling for an invalid vote (“votar nulo”). (JIR statement, Dec. 1, 2007.)

Of course, neither the movement backing Chávez nor the movement backing the right-wing opposition represented a political choice for workers. But that was not the question posed by the referendum, unlike in a regular election where Chávez runs against an opposition bourgeois candidate, when abstention would be the only choice. Here, voting No would just result in maintaining the current constitution.

Here the JIR argues against participating in a specific referendum simply because both sides stand for bourgeois constitutions. The JIR recognizes the mounting threat of Bonapartism in words but then refuses to identify it as the essential question to act on when a vote is posed. Whereas Trotsky said “we must vote against all measures that strengthen the capitalist-Bonapartist state,” the JIR claims that workers must abstain on strengthening the Bonapartist state because the result will still be a bourgeois state. This formalist argument covers up an opportunist conclusion: don’t stand directly against Chávez, not even on this.

In fact, defeating the referendum weakened Chávez’s power and therefore potentially strengthened the workers’ movement to fight back. The vote did not automatically strengthen the threat of a rightist coup; it didn’t even add significant numbers of recruits to the traditional opposition. Had working-class fighters mounted their own opposition and organized their fellow workers to actively vote No, the danger of strengthening the right wing would have been even less.

Last Spring the Chávez regime revoked the license of the RCTV network, creating a groundswell of opposition by the traditional right as well as a new middle-class student movement. The bulk of the left, including Chirino and the whole C-CURA tendency, championed Chávez’s move and urged that he go further. On this matter, the JIR correctly went against the pseudo-left stream, stating their opposition to the censorship of a reactionary TV station, even though opposition to the shutdown was dominated by the right. Again they went to Trotsky, looking at the essence of the question from the point of the class struggle, not siding with the seeming “left wing” of the capitalist class against the “right.” They quoted in their press from his article “Freedom of the Press and the Working Class” in Writings (1937-38):

As Leon Trotsky states in his brilliant work, “Theory as well as historic experience, testify that any restriction to democracy in bourgeois society, is eventually directed against the proletariat, just as taxes eventually fall on the shoulders of the proletariat. Bourgeois democracy is usable by the proletariat only insofar as it opens the way for the development of the class struggle. Consequently, any workers’ ‘leader’ who arms the bourgeois state with special means to control public opinion in general, and the press in particular, is a traitor. In the last analysis, the accentuation of class struggle will force bourgeois of all shades to conclude a pact: to accept special legislation, and every kind of restrictive measures, and measures of ‘democratic’ censorship against the working class.”...

We encourage workers and honest militants, students, and intellectuals to read this important work of Trotsky’s.

Going back to 2004, before the JIR formally existed as a section of the FT-CI, its co-thinkers in the Trotskyist Fraction internationally took the correct position of voting No against the imperialist-backed recall referendum which threatened to remove Chávez from office. This proves to their credit that they are not for abstention in all bourgeois referendums as a matter of course and that they can distinguish between a referendum and a regular election. It was correct in that situation to bloc with pro-Chávez voters. Even though Chávez advocated it, the recall was an extraordinary and illegitimate exercise forced upon the Venezuelan people by U.S. imperialism. The result of a successful recall campaign would not have been a normal electoral change in bourgeois representation but rather the opening for some sort of coup under a “democratic” pretense, and with covert U.S. support.

As the Mexican section of the FT-CI, the LTS (Workers League for Socialism) pointed out at the time, a vote against the recall referendum was a vote against imperialism and not a political endorsement of Chávez. In their article of August 13, 2004, the LTS stated:

The Chávez leadership can only bring defeat and frustration to the Venezuelan masses. Unfortunately, most of the left capitulates to him, bestowing political support more or less shamefacedly, which only serves to impede the proletarian vanguard from regrouping around independent working-class politics. ... Vote NO critically, a NO to the opposition and to imperialism, which in no way means a YES to Chávez.

It was equally correct to abstain in the December 2006 presidential election, as the JIR did, and give no political support to any bourgeois candidate.

If the FT-CI tendency in 2004 was able to recognize that a No on the recall referendum was not a Yes for Chávez, we raise the question of why they couldn’t recognize that a No on the December 2007 constitutional referendum was not a Yes for the current constitution. It does them great discredit that they came up with such a paper-thin argument for abstention this time.

Left Opportunism and the Student Opposition

The only far left tendency we know of in Venezuela to call for a No vote was the Morenoite Unidad Socialista de los Trabajadores (UST: Socialist Workers Unity), a small group affiliated to the Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (LIT: International Workers League). They called for a No vote but under the horribly false justification that it was mainly necessary to intervene in the middle-class student movement that opposed the referendum! While it would be wrong to argue that the student opposition is thoroughly right-wing and bought and paid for by the CIA, it is definitely a movement which calls for democratic rights based on free enterprise and has nothing to do with the aims of the workers’ movement and the fight against imperialism.

The bulk of the left, whether it calls itself Marxist or Bolivarian or both, is still cheerleading Chávez – with whatever hand-wringing criticisms they made about how the referendum was carried out. Not only do most of these groups not consider the struggle of the working class to be central; they virtually ignore it. That is why the JIR, which does politically oppose Chávez in general and does address itself centrally to the working class, is worthy of far more attention.

The defeat of the referendum is undoubtedly creating openings and encouraging the working class to put forward its demands. It did not result in an immediate rise of the right, while it has shown workers that there are many who share their mounting questions about the regime. Chávez conveniently claimed that the vote against his referendum showed that the working class was not ready for socialism. The opposite is far closer to the truth.

No to Imperialist Intervention!

No to Capitalist Attacks on the Workers and the Poor!

No to State Intervention in the Unions!

Mass Workers’ Armed Self Defense!

Build the Revolutionary Party of the Working Class!

Re-create the Fourth International!

Socialist Revolution Is the Only Solution!

>Return to LRP homepage | Write to the LRP