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No saviours or substitutes
In Perspective column by Chris Harman, January 2008
The words of the Internationale strike a chord for all socialists who believe society can only be transformed from below. It is a message that could not be more urgent than for today's working class in Venezuela and Bolivia.
No saviour from on high delivers
So runs the second verse of the socialist anthem the Internationale. It is rarely sung in Britain. But the message is very important.
It not only signifies that the society revolutionary socialists want is more democratic than capitalism; it recognises that great historical changes are not the result of individual heroes or heroines, but of the struggles of great masses of people, of classes in conflict with other classes. Individuals only play a role insofar as they express and give direction to these struggles. They cannot substitute for such struggles.
It is a message that is all too often ignored. Whenever a great social change takes place the tendency is to see it as emanating from one individual. Adulation replaces analysis; sycophancy is equated with solidarity.
The danger of this approach is to be seen in Bolivia and Venezuela — countries where the anti-capitalist struggles of the last eight years have reached their highest peak. Many of those in Britain who rightly want to show support for those struggles believe it necessitates blind faith in their two presidents, Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez.
Adulation is not confined to Britain. In Bolivia there are very large numbers of indigenous people who have put their hopes in their first indigenous president. In Venezuela, Chavez has had enough popular support to be elected three times running with a higher percentage of the vote than any British prime minister in the last 100 years.
But the logic of events is forcing people to see things in terms of more than just personalities. In Bolivia governors in the eastern provinces are threatening secession unless Morales bows down to the oil and gas oligarchy. In Venezuela the immediate threats to the process are not as great. But it has suffered its first defeat with the No victory in December's referendum on the constitution.
The wording of the referendum was the embodiment of the "saviour from on high" approach. Its central provisions were to strengthen the powers of the president and lift the limit on the number of times he could run for office. It spoke of "socialism" but left it to the president to decide how this was to be interpreted — whether as Western social democracy, as something like the old East European or Cuban systems, or as some radically new version.
Chavez's "top down" approach has only been able to do a certain amount to deal with the poverty and insecurity that blight the lives of many of those who have supported him. He has been able to use oil revenue to provide new health and education facilities. But he has not been able to stop what is still a capitalist economy leading over recent months to the highest level of inflation in Latin America, with shortages of basic things like milk, and to a minimum wage which is less than a family needs to live on.
To deal with these things he would have to stop relying on state structures inherited from the previous corrupt capitalist governments. But he depends on these structures to implement his decisions, and his ministers use them even when it comes to setting up local forms of "popular power".
The referendum exposed the huge gap which has opened up between many of the poorest people in society and the governmental machine. Some three million people who voted for Chavez in the presidential election a year before failed to vote for his constitution. Among them were more than a million members of Chavez's new United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The fall in the vote was highest in the states with the highest concentration of workers.
They clearly did not feel that the new constitution empowered them to achieve the things they desperately need. The Venezuelan revolutionary Roland Denis sees two causes for the defeat: "One, very mundane, the disappearance of milk and provisions from the shelves — a hard blow which causes even more fear. The other, more fundamental, the disaster of the public administration, the corruption, and the employment practices of the government in repressing protests, strikes and occupations."
Chavez cannot be equated with the corrupt officials who implement his decisions. But his "top-down" approach prevents him from seeing what really caused the defeat. So he has spoken of the three million of his former supporters who abstained as "traitors, cowardly and out of their minds".
"Anyone who says they will not vote for me because their scholarship did not arrive on time... or they have waited three years for somewhere to live — I prefer such people to go over to the opposition because they are not revolutionaries."
This amounts to "top-down" moralistic attacks on millions of poor people as a way of avoiding coming to terms with his failures and it can only play into the hands of the capitalist and imperialist interests.
But what is at stake is not just the future of Chavez or Morales. If they are overthrown by the right it would constitute a setback for the current wave of struggles right across Latin America, potentially as serious as the defeats suffered in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s or in Central America in the 1980s.
That is why is it so important that activists are now discussing the lessons of the setbacks that have occurred. Class society can only be transformed by mass struggle, and the only way to build mass struggle is from below, among the masses and taking into account their needs and aspirations. The words of the rarely sung verse of the Internationale retain all their relevance.
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