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Venezuela's 21st-Century Socialism: An interview with Gregory Wilpert

Left Turn Editors Collective
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

Beyond the rhetoric and media hysteria that surrounds President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela and the "Bolivarian Revolution" have meant radical changes in the country and what some would call an innovative "bottom-up" 21st -century socialism. Whether with inspired support or critical reluctance, radicals in the US and around the world are looking to Venezuela as one model for social change and anti-imperialist power. Hoping to understand some of these successes and contradictions, Left Turn sat down with Gregory Wilpert, author of Changing Venezuela by Taking Power and editor of to dig deeper.

LT: What is "21st century socialism" and the Bolivarian project? How have things been developing in Venezuela, especially since Chávez's re-election in 2006?

GW: The first thing is that the Bolivarian project itself didn't start out as an explicitly socialist project; it did start out as a leftist progressive project that had some nationalist overtones aimed at getting rid of US influence in Latin America. Actually, Chávez and the Bolivarian movement that supports him were radicalized in the confrontation with the opposition in Venezuela, beginning when he took office in 1999. So then it became more explicitly socialist in trying to find an alternative to capitalism. Chávez supported the idea of 21st century socialism because he had a critique of what you could call 20th century socialism-a much more state socialism. Even though people say that Chávez wants to copy the Cuban model, he has actually denied that on many occasions and has said that Venezuela has its own path, a path not so state-centered although certainly the state plays an important role.

So, what are the main elements of that? I would say an important element on the political  dimension is the creation of participatory democracy-to create an alternative to liberal representative democracy because, according to the Bolivarian movement, representative democracy did a big disservice to Venezuela and created a very corrupt class of politicians that weren't accountable to the people except during elections. Even then they had the whole system rigged in their favor. The alternative they proposed to that kind of representative democracy was participatory democracy, which would be a political system where people were much more involved in the governance process, whether through referenda, or the communal councils which are a form of direct democracy at the local level, through what they call citizen control or social audits where people can request to see the bookkeeping of any public institution and keep close oversight over the management of state institutions.

Another aspect of 21st century socialism, of the Venezuelan kind, is the role of cooperatives and self-management in the workplace that take the form of a push on the part of the government for the formation of cooperatives. So when Chávez came into office there were maybe 800 cooperatives and now there are said to be over 100,000. Also supporting the creation of worker-managed enterprises instead of state owned enterprises that are managed or co-managed by the workers.

LT: Why did you title your book Changing Venezuela by Taking Power? How is it a response to  theorist and sociologist John Holloway's book Changing the World Without Taking Power and the notion that the state is not the central site of social change and struggle?

GW: It seems that in large segments of the Left, particularly in the US, but also in many other countries, Holloway's thesis of ‘changing the world without taking power' is kind of popular, and there is a strong, almost abdication of any effort to take state control and to work for social change by taking it. So I think Venezuela is an example of a place where the Left has gotten state power by democratic means, and has shown that it is possible to do a lot of good by having that power.

One of the main issues is that many times the state is used to repress social movements and so having a progressive ally in state power can be extremely beneficial for social movements and grassroots organizing. Venezuela proves this by the proliferation of grassroots organizing that has been going on since Chávez became president. The cooperatives are just one small aspect of that but also the effort to create these communal councils. It sounds like it's all coming from the top down, but actually that's not quite true; what happened first was that the Chávez government created the space for people to organize, and created policies where people were given a very strong and powerful incentive to organize on a grassroots level rather then repressing [those efforts].

For example, if people wanted to acquire a title to their homes in the barrios, which were usually created on occupied lands, they were told that it was going to be a collective process and they should get together with 200 to 400 other families and work on giving them the title to the land that they've been living on for years. So people would organize urban land committees in order to do that, and it was a very powerful tool. Tens of thousands of urban land committees shot up throughout the country and provided a very strong base for mobilizing people and organizing.

Same thing [happened] with many of the other social programs, whether it was health committees or working with the water supply company, the government kept giving the same response: rather then saying "We're going to implement this plan from the top down," they said "Organize committees and work with us in terms of how to organize the water supply to your community." So thousands of water committees shot up throughout the country. Now the government has said "Let's try to coordinate this a little better and get together with all these different committees, whether it's the water committees, the urban land committees, the health committee for the community health clinics, or the educational commissions, let's get together and form the communal councils."

Another example of the grassroots organizing is with community media, where the government has said "If you want to have some other form of media we'll provide you with the equipment, you just have to organize people who will manage it and work it." Now hundreds of community radio stations and community television stations have shot up throughout Venezuela as a result. I think this shows how there can be a very positive, self-reinforcing dynamic between state power and the grassroots in order to create real social change much more rapidly then trying to pressure the government or trying to push for small changes here and there.

LT: It seems that many forces on the Left, especially the Zapatistas or some of the movements in Argentina, for example, have been wary of state power. They see that once you enter the realm of the state politics in a capitalist state, you're corrupting your politics and opening up yourself to be co-opted by the state, even ones governed by the Left. In Venezuela, what is the danger of movements being co-opted or not being able to hold on to their autonomy? Is there a danger of these movements becoming more of a clientalist network for Chávez rather than more autonomous left movements?

GW: Yeah, that's definitely a danger, there's no doubt that they could be co-opted into becoming tools of the government and that's something that only the movements themselves can prevent. The government certainly can but it doesn't have the incentive to do so, whereas the movements do, so they need to be watching out for that. But I think there's a lot of wariness. For example, you see it especially among the community media where there's a lot of criticism of the government as well, even though they got the equipment from the government. It's not like they're joining the opposition but enjoy a critical relationship to the government, supportively critical.

Certainly there have been plenty of examples of presidents coming to power and then going back, or becoming co-opted so to speak, into the power elite that exists in each country. The thing that makes Venezuela different is that the Bolivarian movement very consciously resisted that from the beginning and, even though it didn't start out that radical, was uncompromising. This may seem like a contradiction, but Chávez, when he first came into office in 1999, had a very limited left platform, but was uncompromising. He wouldn't budge and that prevented his cooptation and at the same time created this reaction from the opposition and the old elite that then eventually radicalized Chávez and the Bolivarian movement. And so that's a dynamic that is quite unusual. [Chávez] recognized that the mandate comes from the people, and the rich in the country who are trying to undermine that mandate are a minority, so there is no reason to compromise with them.

LT: Can you talk about the failed constitutional referendum this past December. What did it propose and why was it voted down?

GW: When Chávez was reelected in 2006, he argued that he had a mandate to create 21st century socialism in Venezuela because that's what he was campaigning on, even though it was still kind of vague what that meant. He argued that one of the first things he would have to do in order to move this process ahead would be to reform the constitution. Part of the motivation for doing that wasn't so much that it really was necessary but because in Venezuela the constitution has almost taken on the character of a political program and that's the way it already was in the 1999 constitution when Chávez first got into office.

You can group [the referendum] generally into four different categories: one of them was certainly a positive one, to increase social inclusion. It had elements of providing a pension fund for the informal sector, giving equal rights to lesbians and gays, [and] lowering the voting age. Another important aspect of the reform had to do with the economy and increasing the states' role in the economy via the constitution, such as making it easier for the government to nationalize and eliminating the autonomy of the central bank. A third aspect of the reform had to do with deepening participatory democracy, the most important element of which was giving the communal councils constitutional rank, in other words mentioning them in the constitution. The fourth aspect of the reform had to do with strengthening the presidency and that one probably had the most negative aspects to it; for example eliminating term limits for the presidency, further control over the military, the creation of regional vice presidents and so on.

The reason I think it failed is that, first of all, it was a very top-down process. Chávez developed it relatively secretly in a commission that was hand-picked and then dropped on the population a couple months before the vote. Everybody thought this process was extremely rushed and not only that, you couldn't figure out what this whole process was really about because you got totally contradictory information from the opposition and from the government. The only way to figure it out yourself would be to read the thing yourself: a 50-page booklet that was extremely legalistic and difficult to make sense of. Another factor was that a lot of people felt that [while] a lot of attention was being paid to this reform, the social programs were being neglected, and so rather than voting against Chávez they basically abstained.

LT: What have been the adverse effects for the Bolivarian movement since the failure of the referendum, and by contrast, what kind of wind has its defeat put into the sails of the opposition?

GW: Chávez supporters were really dumbfounded by the result but it didn't take much wind out of their sails, and actually the overall result was very positive for the process in Venezuela because it forced the government to reevaluate its situation was reminded quite powerfully that it needs to pay attention to what the people want. The opposition of course was very jubilant but again I think it was only a temporary jubilation in some ways. In a way the loss of the reform contributes more to the normalization of Venezuelan politics, which is good because it had been in a state of exception. If it becomes more normalized, it's going to make it more difficult for the opposition to undermine the government by unconstitutional means. Internationally, Chávez looks much better as a result. It's much more difficult to launch accusations that he's a dictator. If the Bolivian movement manages to learn from the experience I don't think the opposition will be able to gain too much from it.

LT: Can you discuss the role Venezuela is playing regionally in Latin America in terms of creating a counterweight to neoliberalism and the influence United States?

GW: I think it's quite clear that Venezuela's played an extremely important role, not only in terms of giving courage to leftist leaders in Latin America to take stronger positions than the otherwise might have taken, but it has been instrumental in bringing Latin America together and creating a "multipolar world," one in which different regions have stronger, more independent voices, against the United States. Venezuela has been extremely energetic in terms of proposing one thing after another for bringing Latin America together, whether it's Telesur, the Bank of the South, Petro Caribe or Petro America. Each of these partnerships has been growing.

LT: What do you see as the major challenges the Bolivarian Revolution currently faces?

GW: Generally you can group the challenges into two categories, external and internal. The external ones Venezuela has to a large extent managed to deal with, whether it's the United States-it hasn't managed to overcome it or anything but has managed it in some ways. Another external challenge has to do with global capitalism, which is always a problem for any kind of leftist government. That challenge, too, Venezuela has managed in some sense, mostly thanks to its oil wealth. That is, it's oil wealth makes it relatively independent of, not necessarily of the price of oil, which is still bound up within larger capitalist dynamics, but certainly in how the rest of its economy has maintained relative independence from the global capitalist dynamic; it can afford to insulate itself, to subsidize its industries and has much more freedom domestically because of its oil wealth than most other countries would have. The third one, which is not really external to Venezuela, but it's external to the Bolivarian movement, is the old elite of Venezuela. They too have been effectively neutralized or managed, even though they still own significant portions of the private mass media and exercise some threat and efforts at destabilization.

The only serious threats or challenges are the internal ones and there I see three. One is this whole aspect of clientalism and patronage. I haven't really seen an effort to deal with that. It's closely related to the problem of corruption that Chávez recognizes, but I don't think they have a real concept on how to deal with it or the relationship it has to patronage and clientalism. Another major internal challenge is this dependency of the movement on Chávez. I think there's something being done about that, which is precisely to organize the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the PSUV. Of course the movement is still very dependent on Chávez, but I think if there is some sort of organizational infrastructure it can gradually learn to become more independent of Chávez. The third internal problem to the movement has to do directly with Chávez in the sense that even though he wants to institute 21st century socialism and a participatory democracy, his own leadership and management style works in the opposite direction. He's very much of a top-down manager. It makes it very difficult for any active participation, whether it's on the ministerial level or from the bottom up. Another one that could grow into a bigger problem, but so far hasn't, is the lack of a clear ideological and programmatic direction. I'm saying so far it hasn't been that much of a problem because there's been a willingness to innovate, to experiment and to do things by trial and error; the government has been very receptive to new ideas in that sense and trying out new things. But I think in the long run there is a danger in the lack of a clear program.

LT: What kinds of lessons can we draw from the Venezuelan experience as leftists and social movements in North America? What, if anything, is translatable?

GW: A couple things are translatable. One of them, which would be good for the United States, [would be] breaking the deadlock in the political system [by] chang[ing] the constitution. You're going to need a constitutional assembly or something because the democratic system in the US is too ossified, too beyond hope for reform, and it needs to be completely revolutionized or turned on its head. That's something Chávez saw very clearly for Venezuela. I don't quite understand why it isn't so clear in the United States since so many people are alienated from the political process, know that it doesn't work, and feel that it is beyond reform, but there's no effort to do that. The other thing is a greater acceptance of the idea of leadership, of a political leader. In the US, either people are very skeptical about there political leaders or the political leaders are very weak and always want to play the middle ground and compromise. Chávez in that sense, because of his very principled stance, became a very charismatic leader. I think people are a little bit afraid of this kind of leadership, which is understandable, but I think its part of the reason Chávez was so successful. A third one is the willingness to set as an explicit goal to take state power; that's something that's missing in the United States as well, if you discount Democrats.