Chris Harman


Venezuela, Hugo Chavez
and permanent revolution

(27 January 2007)

From Socialist Worker, No.2035, 27 January 2007.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Chavez is talking of ‘permanent revolution’ in Venezuela. But, argues Chris Harman, there is a fight for the future of the revolution and for change from below

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez recently announced a shift to the left in his government.

“Trotsky said that the revolution was permanent, it never finishes. Let’s go with Trotsky,” he said.

Chavez has already caused anger among the Venezuelan upper classes by using some of the revenue from the state owned oil company to provide special welfare provision in the poor areas.

Now he has announced the re-nationalisation of the electricity network and the biggest telecommunications company.

He has reshuffled his government, getting rid of ministers from the two small social democratic parties that are part of his electoral alliance.

Among the new ministers is one from the Communist Party and another – minister of labour Jose Ramon Rivero Gonzalez – who warned Chavez, “I have Trotskyist ideas.”

Chavez replied, “But I am a Trotskyist too, I follow Trotsky’s line of permanent revolution.”

Chavez has called for the replacement of his four party electoral coalition by a “united revolutionary party” involving not just the parliamentarians, but also the many thousands of activists not belonging to any party.


What has brought about this radicalisation? The habit of the mainstream media is always to see political changes as resulting from the actions of political celebrities. It is a habit which easily infects the left.

But the radicalisation in Venezuela has been driven from below – by the reaction of the mass of the urban poor, the workers and the peasantry to attempts to overthrow a government that started off backing only very mild reforms.

Chavez has moved to the left as he reacts to the feelings of the million or more people who have played the key role in these movements from below.

The latest example of the mood to the left was the presidential election at the beginning of December, where Chavez got 62 percent of the vote.

The result easily saw off the latest challenge from the right. But the election campaign also brought to a head activists’ discontent with the Chavista electoral parties.

They were seen as cut off from the movement, with repeated complaints of their “bureaucratism”, “clientalism” and “corruption”.

Chavez is responding to these feelings. But there are still limits to his radical actions.

Most of Venezuelan big business remains untouched – and Chavez insisted in a recent speech that there was still an important role for the “national bourgeoisie”.

Chavez’s moves are not going to stop the corruption and bureaucracy which affects not only the parties of the electoral coalition, but the non-elected hierarchies of the state machine.

The top ranks of the civil service remain stacked with people appointed under the corrupt pre-Chavez system. And the armed forces continue to be full of career officers who share the values of the Chavez-hating upper-middle class.

Such elements do not dare move against Chavez at present, but they find it easy to sabotage government decisions they do not like.

So serious left wing analysts talk not only of the corruption and bureaucracy, but also of endless muddle, in which even a lot of money for the welfare programmes goes astray.

Chavez’s own references to corruption show that he recognises some of these faults.

The call for a new party is his attempt to pull together a structure that can give some direction to the attempts to reform the state as well as society.

But permanent revolution is about more than trying to impose change from above.

Karl Marx first conceived the idea analysing the revolutions of 1848-49. Leon Trotsky took up the idea after the 1905 Revolution in Russia.

For them it was about how movements that begin around demands for democratic political changes mobilise the mass of workers to take action and, in the process, to take the lead in the revolutionary process.

Mass activity from below may start with the democratic demands voiced by middle class leaders, but it develops a momentum in which the mass of workers begin to take control of their own destinies and fight for full blooded social revolution.

Chavez merely decreeing from above that all the political forces that have defended him should unite into a single party will not make this happen.

There are very different conceptions about the direction Venezuela should go in among those who back Chavez – conceptions that mean that any apparently united party would involve four distinct tendencies.

The first, to be found among parliamentarians and some elected officials, holds that the government should be more conciliatory towards big business and the right wing.

The second would be for moving towards what its adherents call socialism, but at a very slow pace. For them, the aim of a single party would be to slow down the revolutionary process.

A third tendency looks to establishing a Cuban-type society.

In Venezuela, the hostility to Cuba from the US has led many people to see it as a model – a way of running society that can lead to socialism and a better, freer life for the mass of people.

In the 1960s and 1970s the Cuban leadership accepted a model of running society strongly influenced by the old Soviet Union. That meant denying the mass of workers and peasants the right to discuss and vote over the direction of government policy or even to have independent trade unions.

Today, despite talk of socialism, Cuba is marked by enormous disparities of wealth and income.

State control

Supporters of the Cuban model might try to use the movement from below to establish state control of industry and control of the state by a single party. But they would stop the movement in its tracks if the mass of people took decisions into their own hands.

What their approach means in practice was shown in the spring of last year. The majority of delegates to the congress of the new UNT union federation voted for proper elections for the officials of their union, to make it into an organ of working class democracy.

A minority of delegates walked out to prevent the elections, arguing in effect that workers electing their own leaders was irrelevant to the revolutionary process.

This is the opposite to permanent revolution as meant by Marx and Trotsky. It is an attitude which tries to stop the mass of workers democratically taking their fate into their own hands and playing a leading role in the revolutionary process.

Finally, there is the genuinely revolutionary tendency – those groupings of activists for who making the revolution permanent means organising the mass of workers, the urban poor, the indigenous groups and the peasants to fight for their own demands.

One such grouping is the Class Struggle Tendency. It is the majority in the UNT and is influenced by Trotskyism (of a very different variety to that of the new minister of labour).

Another is the organisation Por Nuestras Luchas (“By Our Struggles”) that is influenced by traditions of urban guerrillaism and autonomism and looks to organising the poor, the peasants and the indigenous groups.


In the great revolutionary movements of the 20th century, permanent revolution meant workers throwing up their own democratic institutions from below, workers’ councils, and then drawing behind them the rest of the exploited and the oppressed.

The workers, bound together in the workplaces by a common battle against exploitation, found it easier to develop an organic unity in struggle than did the peasants or the urban poor.

Disillusion with the parliamentarians means there is a great deal of talk about “popular power” as an alternative in Venezuela.

But for the first three tendencies it simply means councils elected to mediate between the government and the mass of people.

For the revolution to become truly permanent workers would have to go much further than this. They need to establish their own democratic organs so as to take control of the government, to replace the existing corrupt state structure and to reorganise industry so as to end the poverty and huge inequalities that still characterise Venezuela today.

The fact that these things are being discussed is a sign of the degree to which the movements from below have shaken up Venezuelan society.

But the movements still have a way to go if revolution is really going to turn society upside down, so that the exploited become the ruling class.

Last updated on 14 December 2009