To Recover Strategic Thought and Political Practice
by Chris Gilbert
It is common to understand the diverse “processes” in Latin America — in the period marked initially by Zapatismo in the mid-1990s and later by the emergence of left or popular governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador along with center-left governments in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina — within the theoretical framework of a return or recuperation of the left following the fall of the East Bloc. This kind of formulation has a number of problems. On the one hand, it is too optimistic (since the left is still in retreat and the tide of the neoliberal counterrevolution has not been turned). On the other hand, it misses the specificity of the processes: the way in which they were notable attempts to reinvent or rediscover left politics after the eclipse of strategic political thinking shared by both official Marxism and by the “end-of-history” view that emanated from the right wing.
The left loves to cite V. I. Lenin to the effect that without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary practice and vice versa, without doing justice to the specifically political mediation between theory and practice that is one of Lenin’s most important contributions to Marxism. That is to say, Lenin understood that it is strategic politics — always with an important degree of autonomy from the economic and even social spheres — that must mediate between theory and practice. Lenin’s argument in What Is To Be Done?, in which he twists Kautsky’s words while apparently paying homage to him, is that politics and political consciousness must come from outside of the economic struggle.1
Despite Lenin’s enthronement by the revolutionary left, strategic politics has suffered in left practice under dominant economist and progressivist ideologies. That is because these ideologies all promise some motor independent of strategic practice — call it dialectics, progress, or the development of productive forces — that will (automatically, apolitically) bring about and guide political and especially social changes. Strategic thinking by the revolutionary left has emerged only briefly and intermittently in the 20th century: e.g. in the Thalheimer and Bukharin debate in the Comintern in 1925, in Gramsci’s reflections taking off from Machiavelli in the prison notebooks in the 1930s, in important moments of the Chinese Revolution before the mid-century voluntarist derive, and in Cuba during the 1960s. Strategic political thought has also had a troubled career under the influence of postmodernism, which newly opened the left to thinking about politics and power but frequently effaced political thought through the fetichization of the micro, the multiple, and becoming.
This is where Latin America comes in with its specific searching for political forms that its political processes represent. Here one should not be fooled by (nor ignore) the discourse. That is to say, popular power and participatory democracy should be considered, but also one should look at the re-purposing of representative and electoral institutions and forms. In Venezuela, an unashamed reliance on a leader played an important part, but at the same time this leader was — in the best moments of the Bolivarian process — brought down to earth as a “compañero” and as “one of us.” The political vanguard relied in novel ways on the mass media to organize constituents and neutralize enemies. Finally, there were strange blocs of power and alliances. Interestingly, the leadership tended to be blissfully ignorant of Marxist hang-ups about the centrality of the working class, while the unemployed, the semi-employed, and the indigenous all entered into a varied and changing mix that represented the bloc of change.
A key element of this reinvention of politics was the recuperation of the concept and value of sovereignty. This concept was recuperated (partially) from the jaws of a falsely universalizing discourse of human rights and humanity that had dominated progressive tendencies in the period 1980-2000. That discourse is falsely universal in the sense that, as long as humanity has no functioning institutional framework (the UN!? the International Court of Justice!?), then the concept of “humanity” becomes inhumanely manipulated by the most powerful nations and their ruling classes.2 Furthermore the discourse of human rights, though it can be employed in resisting established power, tends to obliterate politics by channeling most of what should be political relations into the mere relation between victims and (often overlooked) victimizers. This is because politics is essentially about struggles between class or national enemies and is thus wholly different in nature to the relation between victims and victimizers (since a political actor is obviously not a victim of his friends, nor is he precisely a victim of his enemies, to whom he is more correctly considered — symmetrically and equally — an enemy).
The Latin American processes all recovered the concept of the sovereign nation and with it some form or other of (sometimes couched) anti-imperialist discourse, thereby effecting a rupture with the nebulous lexicon of humanity and abstract human rights. In Venezuela, the right of Venezuelans to their petroleum was by no means a human right but rather something more concrete and profane. Not surprisingly, the recovery of strategic political thinking by Chávez and the Venezuelan process was often framed with military metaphors such as Chávez’s claim that politics was a cavalry that was not being used properly: “I compare the cavalry with politics and the artillery with the economy,” the Venezuelan president said in 2002; “It is politics that is demanding its central place in the battle for the world.”3 Chávez also broke with the straitjacket of determinism, inventing a handful of projects and institutions every day. Most of them came to nothing, because they were never realized or petered out after a brief time — that was inevitable. However, the most important fact is that the rescue of invention (“Inventamos o erramos” was Chávez’s slogan taken from Simón Rodríguez) and the constant experimentation and search for new forms and institutions was a daily reality in Venezuela during the high moments of the Bolivarian process.
Of course, the question of what kind of politics Chávez practiced is indeed difficult to make precise. Beyond identifying its strategic character, there remains much to flesh out. “Strategic” in exactly what way? One key element is courage, which is a basic element of politics, since it is the condition of freedom. Hannah Arendt tells us that the politically relevant form of courage means leaving the home, the family, for the adventure of the public arena.4 This is certainly the case with Chávez, who, though he loved his family and home (Sabaneta, Barinas) and practiced some degree of nepotism, was also not of his family or region in any way. In a profound sense, he had left them behind for an original and public form of existence. Another element is the profound link Chávez established with the masses, based on the concept of a heroic enterprise in which they were invited to participate. The heroic feat is something that has deep roots in Venezuelan consciousness and, like the Greek prattein, it is framed in a way that exceeds any simple means-end thinking: justification and glory are integrally bound up in the greatness of the enterprise.
Another chapter in these processes — though certainly not the last one — was the eclipse of strategic politics that came in Venezuela, not simply with the death of Chávez and the later presidency of Maduro, but rather during the career of Chávez himself. Strategic and profane politics began to recede in 2007-8 under Chávez when he faced the right-wing student movement and failed to form the PSUV into an effective political party. Messianism, always latent in the Bolivarian process, began to unfold and predominate. With the Misión Vivienda Venezuela, Chávez, whose signature appears on the buildings, became a benefactor figure. Of course, it is hard to locate the precise point of inflection, since institutions and even persons can surreptitiously have their content and practice emptied out and filled in with something other and new.5 That is the case with Chávez, who, behind the guise of his unique and charming personality, silently replaced his earlier profane practice and concrete strategy with the spectacle of an individual savior. The relation of masses to leader quietly shifts its center of gravity from the former to the latter. Under Chávez, much before Nicolás Maduro came into power, a form of nonpolitics and a mode of “Chavist” spectacle took shape. These are shoes into which Maduro steps, adding his own new-age quirks.
Our starting point in this article was the claim that the importance of the Latin American processes is to be located in their (transient) recovery of strategic thought and not so much in a tide-turning in the global left-right struggle (which they were not). As if to confirm the latter, there is at the present moment overwhelming evidence that the Latin American left has not been able to advance toward socialism in any concrete way; the Venezuelan process was in fact a popular management of a capitalist economy in a time of economic bonanza. With this bonanza having reached its limits, the Chavist class alliance that was embodied in this popular management of a capitalist economy — with its social programs (“Misiones”) which benefited the masses, combined with capital flight and accumulation in the exterior for the bourgeoisie — is no longer viable.
Chávez, before dying, called for a “golpe de timón,” a radical change of course.6 Whatever his expressed intentions — such as strengthening the commune or improving the conduct of political cadres — this dying wish of Chávez cannot be understood as anything other than his intuitive grasp of the need to recover strategic thought and political practice: the need to plan a strategic move that would break with the class alliance of the heretofore operative Chavist model. Indeed, this is the way forward for Chavism, however dark the times may seem and however complicated the mediations would be between the present moment and this new strategic objective.
1 Daniel Bensaïd, La política como arte estratégica(Madrid: Oveja Roja, 2013): 67.
2 “The concept of humanity is an ideological instrument that is particularly useful for imperialist expansion” and “tends to deny the enemy his human condition” (Carl Schmitt, qtd. in Daniel Bensaïd, Elogio a la Política Profana, Barcelona: Ediciones Península, 2009, p. 149).
3 Hugo Chávez Frias, Discursos e intervenciones, Diciembre de 2002 – Enero de 2003 (La Habana: Ediciones Plaza, 2003): 300.
4 Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2007): 167-170.
5 Chris Gilbert, “¿Qué hacer y con quién? a propósito del problema político del proceso bolivariano,” Rebelión (September 9, 2014).
6 Hugo Chávez, “Strike at the Helm,” Monthly Review (October 8, 2012), .
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela