Venezuela: Will the trade unions have to give up their independence?

Chávez issues ultimatum for joining the United Socialist Party of Venezuela(PSUV)

The Venezuelan president has announced the need to create a united socialist party, capable of transforming Venezuela and setting out on the road to socialism. This is extremely positive. However, we have to look beyond the rhetoric at the process which is actually unfolding.

In a speech made on the 24 March, in front of 2,400 promoters of the future United Socialist Party of Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez warned the leaders of the political parties and the trade unions who do not want to follow him into the new proposed party that they face mass desertion: “I know what’s going to happen and I’ll lend them my little red car (a red Volkswagen beetle given to him by the defence minister) so that they can go for a ride. They’ll all fit”.

The debate about whether or not to join the new party has been raging since the announcement of Chávez after his re-election in December that he wanted to form a unified socialist party to govern with. The President insisted that this new party will be built from below, will be a key force against bureaucracy, and will represent a major step forwards towards Socialism in Venezuela.

Political parties dissolving or slowly disintegrating

With the notable exception of the PCV, the Venezuelan Communist Party, all the biggest pro-Chávez coalition parties have dissolved themselves or are slowly disintegrating. The right wing of the Chávez coalition, represented by parties such as Podemos and Patria Para Todos (PPT) have tried to resist the call to dissolve themselves and have argued against the radical socialist rhetoric of the president. Both of these parties defended their position in the name of pluralism, against one party government and very significantly mentioned that their brand of socialism is one which defends “private property”. While the CWI supports the rights for different parties to exist, we do not agree with the continuation of capitalism in Venezuela as defended by Podemos and Patria Para Todos.

The paradox is that after weeks of verbal assaults against these parties by Chávez and leaders of the main Chávez party, the MVR, some of the most right wing elements of Podemos and the PPT have jumped ship and joined the PSUV to save their careers.

The PCV, the oldest existing party in Venezuelan politics, decided that it could not join the PSUV. The general secretary of the party, Oscar Figuera, declared that "when it is being said that the unity party will not be a Marxist-Leninist party, which we obviously are, it is clear that the conditions do not exist for us to dissolve ourselves". President Chávez responded to this statement by saying that he had studied Marxism in his youth, read Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ whilst in the army. but that ‘Socialism in the 21st century’ had nothing to do with Marxism-Leninism (see  Venezuela: Political crisis hits the Chávez government).

Not all is what it seems…

While so far there is little evidence that the new party is going to be built from the ground upwards or that it will fulfil its promise to be democratic and an instrument for the socialist transformation of society, we should not underestimate the expectations which exist amongst a layer of activists in the building of the PSUV. They see it as a potential victory over the reformist and bureaucratic party machines of the existing parties of the Chávez government. The hatred towards the corrupt officialdom of these parties is expressed in the popular jokes about the names of the pro-Chávez parties. Some call the main Chávez party Movemement for the V Republic (MVR), Me Volví Rico (I came back rich). In the same way the synonym for Patria Para Todos has become Plata Para Todos (‘Money for all’ in stead of ‘Fatherland for all’) and Podemos is referred to as Pedimos (‘We Ask’ instead of ‘We Can’).

Workers are left in the cold

As the language about Socialism in the 21st century becomes more widespread, it jars with the daily experience of many workers. The debate in society about Socialism, in large part started by Chávez, is extremely positive. However, there is the danger that if the rhetoric is out of tune with reality, workers will draw their own conclusions and over time withdraw their support for ‘Socialism in the 21st century’. It is that conjuncture the right wing opposition, and US imperialism, is waiting for in order to deliver a death blow to the Venezuelan revolutionary process.

The public sector workers, for example, had to wait for 27 months before collective bargaining started. The same is happening with the workers in the oil-sector at present.

To add to this the government has declared recently that while it wants to put the strategic sectors of the economy under state control, it will not allow workers participation in the management of these enterprises. Chávez even declared that he will not nationalise SIDOR, one of the biggest steel companies privatised under the pre-Chávez government because it is an example of “good capitalism”. The trade union leader Orlando Chirino reacted by saying “We understand that president Chávez says this because this is a company owned by a multinational [Techint] based in Argentina; a country that is a friend of Venezuela as is its President, Kirchner. But we ask the question: since when has a good or bad form of capitalism existed?”

Independent trade unionism

Chávez also attacked the left wing of the trade union confederation, UNT, who at this point do not want to join the unified party.

“Trade unions who do not want to have anything to do with the party or the government, who want to be independent, it is a kind of blackmail…they remain odourless, tasteless” Referring to Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet “The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions” written and published in 1906, Chávez said that trade unions cannot be autonomous from the PSUV.

However, Luxemburg’s polemic was aimed at the developing reformist social democratic trade union and party bureaucracy in Germany. At the time this party still formally based itself on Marxism and the goal of overthrowing capitalism. The relative stability of German capitalism, combined with the growth of the German workers’ movement at the time, laid the basis for an emerging trade union and social democratic party bureaucracy. The trade union bureaucracies’ demand for political independence from the party was a façade behind which the emerging bureaucracy hid its desire to stifle the influence of the activist base. This demand was aimed at breaking the link with the revolutionary program and making itself more independent of its workers base sought to open the way for the further development of reformism. Rosa Luxemburg foresaw this and defended genuine Marxism.

The debate in the Venezuelan trade union federation UNT about whether or not to join the PSUV has different roots altogether. While the right wing of the UNT, the trade union organisers closest to the government and the state machinery have decided to join the PSUV when it is eventually formed, the left wing is defending its independence from the state and its independence from the PSUV. The debate about independence is an empty debate if it does not refer to the class independence of the workers and poor.

This is a concrete position in relation to the Venezuelan state which, at this stage, cannot be described as a workers state. Even then, as Lenin pointed out in 1921, in a workers’ state that has broken with capitalism the trade unions have a double task; providing the main body of activists and specialist to built the workers state and defending it whilst at the same time defending the working class, including against the bureaucratic elements within their own state. In the process of transformation between capitalism and socialism the workers still need independent trade unions to defend their rights and demands

The current debates in the Venezuelan workers movement are extremely important. The CWI, while defending wholeheartedly every reform made by the Chávez government which is positive for the working class and poor of Venezuela, insists that it is the task of the working class to overthrow capitalism and start to build a socialist society. To make this possible, workers need to build their own organisations, trade unions, and political parties based on their own class interests and demands.

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April 2007