Chris Harman


The faultlines grow deeper

(Spring 2006)

From International Socialism (2nd series), No.110, Spring 2006.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We have analysed three faultlines in the world system in recent issues of this journal – the morass in which the US finds itself in Iraq, the wave of insurgency sweeping South America and the resistance to attempts to push through neo-liberal policies in Europe. All three are deepening.

We have opened a Pandora’s box. The future of the world is at stake here because this region, Iraq, is the defining challenge of our time. There could be a Shia-Sunni war here that could spread beyond Iraq. And you could have Iran backing the Shias and Sunni Arab states backing the Sunnis. You could have a regional war that could go on for a very long time, and affect the security of oil supplies. Terrorists could take over part of this country and expand from here. And given the resources of Iraq, given the technical expertise of its people, it will make Afghanistan look like child’s play.

These words from Khalilzad, the US ambassador who effectively runs Iraq, spell it out clearly. The problems for the US occupation get worse by the month.

British media coverage of Iraq has been focusing on one theme as we go to press – the spate of sectarian killings and the possibility of civil war. What has virtually disappeared from its coverage is the continuing high level of attacks on US forces by the resistance. James Glanz of the New York Times has shown that such attacks had, in fact, ‘steadily grown in the nearly three years since the invasion’. Even during a ‘lull’ in December, the 2,500 violent confrontations were ‘almost 250 percent’ higher than in March 2004. [1]

Attacks on British troops are at a lower level because they have been virtually confined to barracks in the Basra area. And there is barely a mention in the media of the setback for the occupation in the elections that took place in December. The parties that did best outside the Kurdish areas were those most critical of the occupation. The figures the US puts its faith in to run Iraq for it did very badly, with ex prime minister Allawi’s list getting only 25 seats and former US favourite Chalabi getting none. The prime minister, al-Jafaari, might be willing to cooperate with the occupation, but he owes his position to backing from Muqtada Al Sadr, whose supporters staged one of the first uprisings against the US just two years ago.

Despair and mutual recriminations characterise the US military establishment, with generals openly critical of government failings. As in Vietnam in the early 1970s, the US ruling class is stuck in a war it cannot win but cannot withdraw from without humiliating consequences for the whole project of sustaining global hegemony. Iraq, at the centre of the reserves of the world’s most important raw material, is of much greater importance to the world system than Vietnam ever was – and the consequences of defeat are correspondingly greater.

Reaping the whirlwind of divide and rule

There are a limited number of options for any occupying power in such a situation. At the top of the list is usually an attempt to reward local privileged groups for collaborating with the imperialist project. This is precisely what the US has been trying to do in Iraq with the successive occupation governments of the last three years. It is an option which necessarily has the impact of deepening religious and ethnic divisions among the occupied population.

In Iraq it has sought to entice the various sections of the privileged classes with promises of a favoured position – the landowners, tribal leaders who long ago ceased to be genuine representatives of egalitarian communities, capitalists, religious notables who rake it in from charitable donations, middle class politicians keen to find a place in the sun for themselves. It channels funds to them and then relies, as the British did when they ran Iraq and as Saddam Hussein did as he struggled to maintain control in the 1990s, on them to build rival patronage machines that set the mass of the population against each other. Those running these machines have necessarily sought to cover up their own collaboration and to bind supporters to them by emphasising the religious divisions within the Arab population, and the ethnic divisions between Arabs, Kurds and the smaller minorities like the Turkomans.

Divide and rule is a strategy that the British Empire copied from the Romans. It has been taken up with enthusiasm by the US. Two years ago it was thrown completely onto the defensive by the simultaneous uprisings in Fallujah in the centre of the country and by Muqtada Al Sadr’s supporters in the south. Its response was to do a deal which permitted Shia notables to end the conflict with Al Sadr while it prepared for the renewed onslaught on Fallujah which virtually destroyed the city. This gave an apparent Sunni edge to the resistance and encouragement to those minority elements whose Salafist or Wahabist interpretation of Islam sees Shias as idolatrous heretics. The occupying forces also relied increasingly on SCIRI, the Shia based party which runs the interior ministry and whose Badr militia is reported to be behind more than a thousand death-squad killings.

Senior figures in the US occupation have a history of using death squads in Vietnam and then during the civil wars in Central America in the 1980s. It would be surprising if they were not following the same methods in Iraq today. Certainly this is what many Iraqis believe. As Sami Ramadani (who we interviewed in our last issue) wrote in the Guardian after a bomb destroyed the golden dome of Samarra, ‘It has not been Sunni religious symbols that hundreds of thousands of angry marchers protesting at the bombing of the shrine have targeted, but US flags. The slogan that united them on Wednesday was ‘Kalla, kalla Amrica, kalla kalla lill-irhab’ (‘No to America, no to terrorism’).

Divide and rule strategies, however, have a habit of unleashing forces which escape the control of those who first encouraged them. Some important US figures have long advocated partitioning Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states. This has been, for instance, the line of the former US ambassador in Croatia, Peter Galbraith. One of the notorious neo-con ideologists positively welcomes the possibility of communal mayhem. ‘The bombing on 22 February of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, Iraq’, wrote Daniel Pipes in the in the Jerusalem Post, ‘was a tragedy, but it was not an American or a coalition tragedy. When Sunni terrorists target Shi’ites and vice versa, non-Muslims are less likely to be hurt. Civil war in Iraq, in short, would be a humanitarian tragedy, but not a strategic one.’

But as the quote from Khalilzad (an original signatory to the Project for a New American Century) shows, very powerful sections of the US political establishment are now terrified of a break-up of Iraq leading to instability spreading throughout the region. The faultline in Iraq is now also a faultline in US domestic politics.

Bush and the Iran option

How distant Bush’s triumphant presidential election of 16 months ago now seems. In the immediate aftermath the Democrats were still craven in their insistence that Bush’s agenda was not that much different to their own, the anti-war movement was paralysed, and most of the left was demoralised and in disarray. Yet by the beginning of this year the inability to beat the resistance in Iraq was demoralising the Republican Party, with generals criticising the administration, Bush’s opinion poll standing at an all-time low, the anti-war movement revived, the majority of US soldiers in Iraq saying they wanted to get out, and the Democrats expecting big gains in this autumn’s congressional elections. As an article in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs notes, the mood has turned much more rapidly than in Vietnam. ‘The same kind of drop in support that resulted from thousands of deaths in Vietnam has resulted from just hundreds of deaths in Iraq’. [2]

Even more spectacularly, the faultline is also extending out from Iraq into neighbouring states. The clearest evidence of this is the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, undoing all the work the US and the European Union had put into getting a PLO leadership that would accept an utterly subordinate position to Israel. The victory of Ahmadinejad in the Iranian election points the same way. The US’s failure to crush resistance in Iraq is a gangrene eating into its hold elsewhere in the region. An invasion that was meant to bolster up US hegemony for the rest of the century is undermining it.

The US ruling class in general and the Bush administration in particular are split down the middle as to what to do. Domestic considerations and the desire to have troops to intervene elsewhere in the world are creating pressures to withdraw at least some of their forces from Iraq. But that would be a virtually unparalleled blow to US prestige worldwide – and to the hope of the Republican right of dominating US politics for the foreseeable future.

The instinctive response to such a dilemma is to try to restore unchallenged dominance at home and abroad by hitting out at other targets, just as Nixon and Kissinger did in the 1970s when they responded to the vision of defeat in Vietnam by spreading the war to Cambodia. Hence the attempts to destabilise Syria with accusations of interference in Lebanon – an interference which began with the support of the US and France three decades ago as they sought to crush an upsurge from the country’s Palestinian refugees, the mass of poor Shias and the left. Hence too the escalating confrontation with Iran over its nuclear energy programme.

The US is making these threats from a position of weakness rather than strength. It is hardly likely to endear itself to the Shias in Iraq by attacking Iran or stopping the flow of Syrian arms to the Shias of southern Lebanon. Rationality would seem to imply the US backing away from a full-scale clash. But the very weakness of the US position imposes on it a different sort of rationality – the rationality of the gambler who is prepared to double his stake rather than risk losing what he has staked so far. Even if it does not risk a military invasion, the temptation to bomb Iran will be very great. The calculation is that such a course might increase hatred across the region for the US, but would also increase fear of it.

Behind the smoke from the thieves’ kitchen

How important in all this are the wrangles between the great powers in the Security Council and the backstage manoeuvres involving lesser power in the General Assembly? One section of the left vastly exaggerates their importance, at least half-accepting the claim that gatherings in the United Nations building in New York of representatives of thuggish, corrupt and exploitative governments, somehow constitute an ‘international community’. Much clearer are those people who see it all as a facade behind which the US always pulls the strings. But (as Alex Callinicos points out later in this journal) they can miss out the degree to which the thieves continue to fall out. Across the world there are local ruling classes who have tried to take advantage of the problems the US faces in Iraq to advance their own positions in the global pecking order. They take the predominant power of US imperialism for granted and see no prospect of overthrowing it (whatever the occasional rhetorical flourishes of some Third World governments, as when Brazil and Argentina joined with Chavez to criticise the US at the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata late last year). But they will also seize any opportunity to improve their own bargaining prospects in relation to it. Hence the refusal not only of French and German imperialism, but of many Third World governments to give the US a blank cheque in Iraq.

But the US has a powerful bargaining chip it can use against them. It waves before them a prospect they cannot stomach – instability right across the region they depend on even more than it does for their oil. And it suggests that they have to work within the framework it lays down if that instability is to be avoided. Hence the tense negotiations at the Security Council level, with the European powers, Russia and China one day going along with the US’s threats against the Iran, the next trying to push an alternative strategy. Meanwhile, the willingness of all these governments to go along with the US complaints against Iran, just as they did with the US complaints against Iraq in 2002, helps the Bush administration in a global ideological offensive aimed at facilitating any military attacks.

Islamophobia and the left

One thing helping the US in its efforts to salvage something from the morass of Iraq is the incomprehension of some of the left internationally. You still find articles on websites and in socialist periodicals discussing whether the Western troops should stay in Iraq in order to prevent civil war. But the harsh reality is that the divide and rule methods of imperialist domination have always created divisions which have then been used to try to justify further imperialist domination. There was hardly a British colony where that was not so in the 19th and 20th centuries – India, Ceylon, Cyprus, Kenya, Rhodesia, Guyana, Trinidad, Malaysia, Ghana, Nigeria. Iraq today is no different, and the response of the left should be to insist on the right of the local population to drive the occupying forces out as a precondition for dealing with the roots of division.

At the height of the European colonial empires much of the reformist left made concessions to imperialism’s argument that the local population were not capable of ruling themselves. This meant at least partially accepting the racist stereotypes used to justify the barbaric exploitation of the peoples of rest of the world by Western ruling classes from the late 17th century onwards. Where a stalwart for imperialism like Kipling would describe the colonial peoples as ‘half savage, half child’, reformist socialists would talk about the need to ‘educate the natives’ before ‘giving them independence’.

Each form of racism had its own characteristics – the depiction of Africans as half human at the time of the slave trade, the crude caricatures of the Irish as apemen in 19th century Britain, the extermination of the native Americans so as to seize their land justified because ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’, the myth of the ‘yellow peril’ in the early 20th century, the description of Vietnamese as ‘gooks’ by the US forces that bombed and killed them. What they had in common was that the dehumanising of people in order to exploit them had as its corollary views that treated them as at least less than ‘civilised’, if not less than human.

The form this took with the conquest of Islamic countries – from the beginnings of the British conquest of India in 1757 through to the carve up of the Middle East between Britain and France at the end of the First World War – was the denigration of Islam and an attitude of contempt to those who believed in it. It is this Islamophobia – encompassed in Samuel Huntington’s slogan of ‘the war of civilisations’ – which has been revived in recent years to justify US military offensives in the Middle East. It is an approach which has the advantage to those who use it of attracting not only the American Christian fundamentalists who make up an important section of Bush’s electoral base, but also European secular liberals and even some who claim to be on the far left. They use the slogan of ‘the Enlightenment’ to denounce movements that use the language of religion. But, as Neil Davidson shows in this issue, the Enlightenment grew out of an intellectual mobilisation against oppressive ruling classes. It cannot be used as a stick to hit the most oppressed groups and to damn struggles against US capitalism’s dreams of global dominance.

Much of the left still does not understand the way in which resentment against imperialist control can find expression in religious forms. Opposition to British colonialism in Ireland and Russian control of Poland (under both tsarism and Stalinism) led to popular identification with the Catholic church. Similarly, opposition to imperialism in the region from the Atlantic to the Indus and round into Indonesia and Malaysia has led hundreds of millions to assert their Islamic identity, while the racism encountered by people from these regions whose families have emigrated to the West brings about a similar identification there. There is a misconception involved. It is the misconception of seeing imperialism as a war of Christianity against Islam, rather than as a war of the world’s rich interests against the mass of the world’s poor, whether Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or atheist, a war which is waged as much in Latin America or southern Africa as in the Middle East and Central Asia. But it can nevertheless on occasions mobilise people to fight back against the real enemy. This was something which the Russian revolutionaries of 1917 could see, as Dave Crouch shows in an important article in this journal. It is something the serious anti-imperialist left has to understand today.

There are, of course, reactionary forces who will try to use this religious identification to increase their own influence, just as there always were in British-run Ireland or tsarist-run Poland. The surest way to strengthen their influence is to refuse to fight for the right of the mass of people to express their feelings against oppression in whatever way they wish, including a religious way. If you want to win people from a narrow religious view of their fightback against exploitation and oppression, you have to show them they have allies with different religious views or none. Those on the left who scream most about the ‘dangers’ of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ are those who do most to increase the influence of conservative interpretations of Islam.

When much of the left in France refuse to defend the right of women to wear the hijab, they deepen the gulf between themselves and millions of people from immigrant backgrounds – even many who will not wear the hijab themselves see it as an attack on their rights. The same applies to those people on the left in Britain whose general suspicion of religious censorship led them to refuse to Muslims the (weak) legal protection against racial abuse enjoyed by Jews and Sikhs and to describe as an exercise of freedom of speech a cartoon designed to portray anyone from a Muslim background as a violent terrorist. Those who claim to be the ‘antifundamentalist’ conscience of the left are in fact left apologists for the currently most important racist excuse for imperialism.

Latin America

The faultline in the Middle East is having its effects everywhere else in the world, by sapping the strength and weakening the morale of US imperialism. Nowhere is this truer than in Latin America. ‘Relations between the United States and Latin America today are at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War,’ notes another article in Foreign Affairs. ‘US policy on Latin America is drifting without much steam or direction. After 9/11, Washington effectively lost interest in Latin America. Since then, the attention the United States has paid to the region has been sporadic and narrowly targeted at particularly troubling or urgent situations. Throughout the region, support for Washington’s policies has diminished.’

Bolivia’s election shows how the tide to the left is continuing to sweep its way across the continent. Evo Morales achieved an electoral victory on a scale hardly ever seen by any party in Europe or North America, with over 50 percent of the vote (Labour’s highest total in Britain was 49 percent percent in 1951).

It was double victory: a class victory for the workers, the peasants, and the urban dwellers; but also a victory against the oppression the indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples have suffered since the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in 1532. For first time in the 180-year history of the Bolivian Republic, the inauguration was not a parade of white men in European dress handing the seals of office over to another white man in European dress.

Yet it was also an ambiguous victory. Last summer saw a mass struggle for nationalisation of petroleum reserves come close to shattering once and for all an exploitative ruling class and an oppressive state (see Mike Gonzalez’s article in International Socialism 108). Morales stood back from the central demand of that movement, nationalisation, preferring instead to speak of greater taxation of the multinationals controlling the reserves, and was instrumental in bringing the movement to an end in return for the promise of elections from the old order.

Morales’s perspective, for all his radical language, is of working within the structures of the old regime in order to reform it piecemeal, not of mobilising the forces that were on the street last year in order to smash it. Since taking office he has retired a score of generals. But that is not the same as destroying all the hierarchies in the state and industry that have held people down for so long.

There are some radical figures in his new government. But there are doubts as to their ability to turn the feeling that elected Morales into deeds. The well known far left commentator on Latin America, James Petras, argues in a scathing analysis [3] that key positions are held by people who are very much part of the order the movement was fighting against last summer:

President Morales has named 16 cabinet ministers, of which seven have been called into question by the mass movements which brought Morales to the presidency ...

Salvador Ric Rivera, a conservative Santa Cruz businessman and reputed multimillionaire, accused by the local trade union leaders of money laundering and other shady activities, has been appointed Minister of Public Works and Services ... The key Ministry of Mines was handed to Walter Villarroel who defected from the right wing UCS to jump on the Morales bandwagon. His appointment was denounced by mining leader Cesar Lugo because of Villarroel’s previous stint in government in which he helped to dismantle the Bolivian Mining Corporation (COMOBOL), and for privatising one of the biggest iron mines in the world.

The ministry of defence was assigned to Walker San Miguel Rodriguez, a lawyer and former director of Lloyd Bolivian Airlines (LBA), accused of covering up the illegal privatisation of the former state airlines ... The new minister of defence is a long-time member of the right wing MNR and a former supporter of ex-president Sanchez de Lozada, the president who massacred scores of protesters in 2003 before he fled into exile to the US.

Luis Alberto Arce heads the finance ministry. He has long been connected with international financial institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. The foreign ministry will be run by ... David Choquehuanca, a close collaborator of corrupt neo-liberal ex-president Jaime Paz Zamora.

In general, asserts Petras, the more radical ministers are those who control the ministries in charge of social policies, but those with links to the older order control the major economic and industrial ministries which will determine how many resources are available to them. So although Morales’s first few weeks have seen some radical flourishes like the halving of parliamentary salaries, he has left intact the IMF-backed macroeconomic stability pact, has rejected calls from the unions to raise the minimum wage of $50 a month and has indicated that he has no objection to large landowners continuing to possess latifundia, whether it is 1,000 hectares or 5,000 hectares, providing it is ‘productive’ land. One minister has even said there is no objection, in principle, to the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

This does not mean that the course of the Morales government is definitely and unambiguously set to the right, as was Lula’s in Brazil. Morales owes his position to a mass movement from below, unlike Lula, and there are other leaders of that movement critical in different ways of his stance last summer who are virtually as prominent as he is – the Cochabamba water movement leader Oscar Olivera, the Aymara leader Quispe, the La Paz union leader Solares. And many of those who led the movement are already warning they will take things into their own hands if Morales does not fulfil their demands, above all the nationalisation of the oil and gas reserves, by the beginning of May.

Morales is also subject to very strong pressures from the other direction, from the section of the Bolivian bourgeoisie centred on the eastern city of Santa Cruz, the direct beneficiaries of collaborating with multinational capital in exploiting the oil and gas reserves. Last year they made scarcely veiled threats to break the region away from Bolivia if nationalisation, or even a high level of taxation, was implemented. While Morales won the national election in December, they fortified their own position by taking key provisional governorships. And they can expect external support not only from forces in the US administration hostile to any attack on the multinationals, but also from the Argentinian and Brazilian governments, since the Spanish-Argentinian Repsol-YPF multinational and the Brazilian state-owned Petrobras would both be affected.

The government as presently constituted is an attempt to balance one group off against another while achieving some reforms. Defenders of the Morales approach point to the success of Chavez in Venezuela in forcing the ruling class to concede reforms while continuing to operate within a mixed economy. But Chavez is in possession of an already nationalised oil monopoly with massive current sales revenues. In Bolivia, by contrast, such revenues still remain a fairly distant prospect, leaving little room for reforms short of a wholesale onslaught on capitalist interests. The likelihood is that, pushed first from one direction and then from another, the Morales government will rapidly fall into disarray and the rival forces which threatened to unleash civil war last year will again confront each other directly.

This would have a strong impact outside Bolivia. Chavez, fully backed by Castro, has been following a policy of trying to form a block of Latin American bourgeois states to stand up to the US in important areas of policy – which seemed to reach fruition at the Mar del Plata Summit of the Americas last year. An important element in this is the attempt to create new forms of economic collaboration, extending the Mercosur trading area of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay to include Venezuela, with the aim of establishing what the Chavez government called a Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA, which means ‘dawn’ in Spanish in contraposition to ALCA, the US-dominated Free Trade Area of the Americas). Central to this strategy is collaboration to build oil pipelines west into Colombia, and south through Brazil and Argentina, in which the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA plays the major role. But this means the Chavez government collaborating precisely with those multinationals that are so keen to defend their control of Bolivian oil. If the tension within Bolivia does culminate in civil war, the political shock could shake up the politics right across the continent.

Venezuela after Caracas

Participants in the World Social Forum in Caracas got a sense of how far feeling in the country has moved to the left. Not only did Chavez, speaking to more than 10,000 people in a stadium, denounce Bush and praise the ideas of Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, but there were tens of thousands of young Venezuelans in and around the forum, ready to discuss what exactly is meant by ‘Socialism in the 21st Century’, and where that meant the process in Venezuela had to go next. Where the forums in Porto Alegre had been marked to a large extent by the impact of the NGOs’ desire to avoid political questions, in Caracas the programme was crowded with meetings on socialism, on revolution, on imperialism and on Marxism.

Yet something else should also have been clear to participants as they looked across from the headquarters of the forum, in a Hilton hotel, to the barrios which rise up on either side of the city and to the corporate skyscrapers that tower above the city centre. Venezuela remains today a capitalist society, with TV channels run by media multinationals (albeit Venezuela-based ones), Coca Cola signs dotted along the main streets, privately owned mobile phone networks (one bought up on the Friday before the forum by Cisneros, the media magnate involved in the attempts to overthrow Chavez in 2002), adverts for Nestlé, expensive malls dedicated to selling designer labels, and select neighbourhoods like Altamira where there is little sign of the poor street vendors who crowd the main streets everywhere else in the city.

It is a city of radical politics. But it is not, as George Orwell described Barcelona in 1936, one where you feel the workers are in the saddle.

There is no doubt about Chavez’s own present identification with left wing, anti-imperialist politics. He has moved an enormous way since he was first elected in 1998 when he put his faith in the sort of third way politics preached by Tony Blair. But insofar as individuals make history they do so, as Karl Marx once put it, not in conditions of their own choosing. Individuals who find themselves in government office are not an exception to this. They can only bring about decisive changes if they can give expression to and mobilise social forces.

So what are the conditions around Chavez and what are the social forces available?

Directly beneath Chavez, mediating between his government and Venezuelan society at large, is the state machine. The civilian parts of this – the state bureaucracy and the police forces – have hardly changed since Chavez’s election. All serious Venezuelan commentators recognise that its personnel remain essentially unchanged. In Chavez’s speeches and in the writings of many of the most dedicated Chavistas (see for instance, the interview with vice-president Rangel in our last issue) there are repeated references to the corruption characteristic of this machine. At worst it consciously obstructs the implementation even of changes that Chavez himself wants; at best it is slow and inefficient at implementing them. It is not an instrument for pushing through socialist change.

The military section of the state machine seems to be more tightly under Chavez’s control and the most militantly right wing generals have been sacked or pushed into marginal positions. But it remains organised on essentially the same hierarchical lines as previously, with a career structure designed to advance officers upwards through the middle class as they gain promotion. Many of the middle ranking and senior officers will continue to be under pressure from the rest of the vehemently anti-Chavez upper middle classes. For the moment such elements will be keeping quiet. But given the chance, many would come out into the open and try to reverse changes Chavez has pushed through.

For the moment the armed forces on the ground oscillate between occasional sympathy to radical action from below and occasional brutal opposition. So you can visit barrios where a soldier on guard outside a building is very much part of the activity of the local community organisations and you can even meet officers who are enthusiasts for the revolutionary process. But you also hear stories of officers backing landowners and multinational interests. Miners who dig coal from small mines in the south of the country, for instance, tell how when it came to a confrontation with the For the moment the armed forces on the ground oscillate between occasional sympathy to radical action from below and occasional brutal opposition. So you can visit barrios where a soldier on guard outside a building is very much part of the activity of the local community organisations and you can even meet officers who are enthusiasts for the revolutionary process. But you also hear stories of officers backing landowners and multinational interests. Miners who dig coal from small mines in the south of the country, for instance, tell how when it came to a confrontation with the transnational Cristallex, after taking a neutral position, the army turned against them, with a ‘military terror’ that ‘culminated in a complete occupation, with one soldier for each four inhabitants in a town of only 4,000 people’. [4]

Overall, the state machine cannot be relied upon to deliver reform, let alone revolution. The Chavez government has recognised this in practice by using its oil revenues to set up new institutions, the missions, as parallel structures to the state machine when it comes to delivering educational, health and cheap food provision to the poor neighbourhoods. The missions rely on a mix of paid personnel and volunteers operating outside the hierarchies of existing ministries (in ways that seem very similar to how many NGOs operate in other Third World countries). But this leaves the great mass of government revenues absorbed by the old state machine, with huge salaries for those at the top: the parliamentary deputies get salaries about 12 times the incomes of most Venezuelans.

Finally, Chavez, the state machine and the new institutions all operate within an economy still functioning according to the usual laws of capitalism. The biggest industry, oil, is state owned, and so are some other sectors. But there remains a very big private capitalist sector, catering for things ranging from the provision of food, transport and telecoms services to the manufacture of steel. (And alongside national capitalism there are the multinational corporations that collaborate to varying degrees with it.)

Chavez and his close collaborators can be conceived of as the filling to a sandwich, with national and multinational capitalism above them and a state machine organised along traditional bourgeois lines below them. Only a little of the filling spills down the side in the form of reforms to the mass of people below. The reforms are, of course, welcomed with enthusiasm by the recipients, but they do not change the fundamental character of Venezuelan capitalism.

What is happening may be a revolutionary process, but it is certainly still a long way from being a finished revolution. And whether the process is ever finished depends not on the will of one individual, Chavez, but on what happens at the base of Venezuelan society. Here there is a ferment, fed in part by Chavez’s own radical language about ‘socialism in the 21st century’.

This ferment is creating an audience for those who say it is necessary to organise from below independently of, and if necessary against, both the old state and the official Chavista institutions. This is the message of revolutionary activists within the new UNT union federation associated with the attempt to build a Party of Revolution and Socialism, like Stalin Perez and Orlando Chirino. It is also the message of activists with different traditions, like those involved in the Movement of 13 April. One of these, Roland Denis, looks in this journal at the possibilities and the problems as they see them.

Another French lesson

Students in France erupted into struggle just as we were finishing this issue. We do not know what the outcome will be. But, coming after the risings in the country’s poorer suburbs at the end of last year and the shock results of last year’s Euro referendums in France and the Netherlands and of Germany’s general election, it is further evidence of the explosive potential of resistance to the neo-liberal drive of Europe’s ruling classes.

The pressures on European capitalism to increase exploitation in order to compete in international markets with the US, China and Japan will not go away. They mean relentless efforts from employers to make workers work harder and longer and to cut back on pension and social security rights. They also mean recurrent attempts by governments to push through counter-reform under the guise of ‘modernisation’ and ‘flexibility’. And that in turn is going to mean recurrent upsurges of resistance as workers try to defend positive, real, reforms they have taken for granted for decades.

In the process we will continue to see new groups of workers, a product of industrial restructuring over the last quarter century, adopt the methods of struggle once confined to the older sections of the working class. The recurrent public sector strikes in continental Europe and the strike by university teachers in Britain are testimony to this. We will also see older sections of workers rediscovering nearly forgotten traditions. A prime example of this was the incredible unofficial strike of postal workers in Northern Ireland, with Protestant and Catholic workers marching together down the (Protestant) Shankill Road and the (Catholic) Falls Road for the first time since the unemployed riots of 1932.

Such struggles are often far from fully successful. We are still a long way from the pattern of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when success in one industry encouraged struggles in other industries and a forward momentum of the working class as a whole. The pattern today is for sudden upsurges of activity, showing the possibilities of the future, but then giving way to new employers’ offensives and degrees of demoralisation, especially, for the militants who have to bear the brunt of campaigning whatever the outcome. The effect is more like that of a firecracker, with a succession of small explosions, rather than the chain reactions we saw in the late 1960s.

But regardless of this, the struggles are having the political impact of causing a substantial minority of workers to look for political alternatives. It is this which led to the 8.9 percent vote for the Left Party in Germany last summer and which has pressurised the major forces involved in campaigning for the No vote in France to talk about (although not yet to conclude) an anti-neoliberal political alliance for the presidential election.

The politics of alliances

Such alliances provide very great opportunities for the revolutionary left, as we have argued in previous issues. They enable us to get out of the small group ghettos in which we have too often been confined since the late 1970s and to relate to much larger numbers of people who are moving to the left. It is a mistake to stand aside from them or to endorse them only reluctantly because they are not on a fully revolutionary or even an overtly anti-capitalist programme. Such an approach is to fail to see that, after more than two decades of defeats and demoralisation, many people will start to move into political action from a lower level of consciousness than at the high points in the 1970s. But by moving they will become open to more radical ideas – providing revolutionaries are engaged in struggles alongside them and generalising from the experience. To refuse to get involved in such alliances because there are dangers involved is like refusing to enter the water to learn to swim in case you drown.

At the same time, there is always another danger. Sections of the alliance will be tempted by the illusion that easy gains are to be made by broadening out to embrace politicians committed to neo-liberalism with a social gloss on it. This is what happened in Italy when the leadership of Rifondazione Comunista opted for an electoral coalition with Prodi, former neo-liberal prime minister and an enthusiast for, among other things, the Bolkestein services agreement. It is what is happening in Berlin, where the PDS section of the Left Party holds positions in the city government which is implementing neo-liberal cuts. It is also the direction in which sections of the French Communist Party leadership want to go – embracing the revolutionary LCR on the one hand, but looking to a coalition with the mainstream social liberals of the Socialist Party on the other.

This does not mean that revolutionaries should abandon the new alliances, or behave in such a way as to wreck them while they are hardly formed. Revolutionaries in Germany cannot turn their back on the millions of people who voted for the Left Party just because of the misguided opportunism of the PDS in Berlin. Revolutionaries in Italy have to remain inside Rifondazione Comunista, despite the line taken by its leadership.

Revolutionaries in France have to challenge other sections of the anti-neoliberal left to joint political campaigns, despite the attempts at manipulation by sections of the Communist Party. But it does mean being prepared to engage in hard political debate within the political alliances. In part it is an argument about where neo-liberalism comes from.

There is a widespread tendency to see neo-liberalism as a result simply of an ideological shift at the top of society, as a ‘virus’ infecting the minds of those who design economic policies, or as a ‘coup’ by which one particularly nasty section of the ruling class (usually identified as ‘finance capital’ or ‘multinational capital’) has imposed its will on the rest. From this it follows that all that is needed is a little pressure to make rulers see sense and return to policies that emphasise state intervention and protection of welfare services.

But neo-liberalism is much more than all these things. It is, above all, an expression of the phase capitalism is now in. It is a phase characterised by intensified competition between capitals whose operations transcend the boundaries of national states, even while the capitals continue to use these states to struggle with each other and to claw back the gains made by workers in the past. (For more on this, see Mike Haynes’s review of David Harvey in this journal.) The fight against neo-liberalism is the fight against capitalism in its current stage and cannot be waged successfully using the methods of political pressure or intellectual point scoring alone.

Many people taking up the fight against neo-liberalism do not yet understand this. We cannot afford to exclude them from struggles. But neither can we afford to neglect the task of patiently explaining what is really at stake. That is why there is a need both for the broader political formations and for revolutionary organisation within them.


1. New York Times, 9 February 2006.

2. C. Gelpi and J. Mueller, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2006.


4. Leaflet distributed by Por Nuestras Luchas on a demonstration in Caracas, 27 January 2006. My translation.

Last updated on 13 January 2010