Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Chavismo and Poulantzas

No, nothing to do with 'chavs' - that rather unpleasant and snobbish term of abuse used to describe urban, underclass kids. I'm referring to the political phenomenon in Venezuela. I must admit that I've not been following political events in Venezuela very closely recently, but I occasionally pop in to Venezuela analysis.com to get the latest (S.U.N., too, is good for Venezuelan info). I'm quite a big fan of Chavez and, although there are clearly faults in the politics of the movement that surrounds him, I can't stand those holier-than-thou European and North American lefties who constantly snipe at him (as I'm sure I've mentioned before somewhere).

One article that caught my attention recently was this one, which discusses, amongst other things, the nature and structure of pro-Chavez mobilisation. The central idea seems to be that Chavismo seeks to combine struggle both within and outside the established institutional structures of the Venezuelan state. It makes use of the structures of 'bourgeois'*, representative democracy while, at the same time, it seeks to encourage the proliferation of decentralised, grass-roots forms of participatory democracy (what us socialists might call workers' councils or soviets if we're feeling like sticking our necks out) . Chavismo is then, in some ways, a very interesting attempt to by-pass the hoary old reform/revolution dichotomy - an attempt to combine direct (council) and representative (parliamentary) forms of democracy in the transition to a socialist order.

In fact, the strategy of Chavismo is strikingly similar to the strategy proposed and theorised by Nicos Poulantzas in his last book, State, Power, Socialism. The greater part of the book is taken up with an analysis of the capitalist state - its form, functions and the mechanisms through which it helps to ensure bourgeois domination and the reproduction of the capitalist mode of production. SPS advances a theory in which (to some extent at least) Poulantzas’ earlier Althusserian structuralist rigidity (see Political Power and Social Classes for example) is relaxed and which offers an analysis of the capitalist state in which state power is regarded less as the effect of the particular place of the political ‘level’ within the overall structural matrix of the CMP and more as the (indirect) expression of the relations of power between classes. The last Chapter of SPS advances a possible strategy for the socialist transformation of society which flows from many of Poulantzas’ conclusions in earlier sections of the book about the nature of capitalist state power.

The central point of Poulantzas' analysis is that the state is ‘the specific material condensation of a relationship of forces among classes and class fractions’ (Poulantzas, 2000; 129). It is not a ‘thing’ or an instrument, but a social relation between classes. The state is, in effect, the ever changing material reflection or expression of the balance of class forces - it is the institutional accretion of the effects of past class struggles. The state’s structure and internal organisation, that is, is constantly modified and re-shaped by struggles between classes and between class fractions. It follows that the state is not a monolithic, unified bloc - it is a fractured apparatus, riven with contradictions, fissures and divisions. Neither is it an apparatus which is entirely controlled by, or which exclusively represents the interests of, the ruling class. The struggles of the working class shape the state’s structure and, therefore, working class power (to a certain extent) is manifested and embedded within the state and their interests are reflected in various aspects of state policy.

His strategy centres on the exploitation of the fractured and fissured nature of the strategic terrain of the state and the presence of working class centres of resistance within it. The working class, Poulantzas argues, should ‘bring itself to bear on the internal contradictions of the State’ (Poulantzas, 2000; 257). He claims that:

In the democratic road to socialism, a long process of taking power essentially
consists in the spreading, development, re-inforcement, co-ordination and
direction of these diffuse centres of resistance, which the masses always
possess within state networks, in such a way that they become the real centres
of power on the strategic terrain of the State.
(Poulantzas, 2000; 258)

Poulantzas argues that the Left should seek to combine struggle within the capitalist state though forms of representative democracy with struggle outside the state through forms of direct democracy. Socialist forces should seek to elect a left-wing government and to win the support of a large section of the state personnel so that government and state employees can act together within the heart of the state apparatus. At the same time, the Left should seek to encourage the proliferation of organs of grass roots direct -democracy (such as factory and office councils, neighbourhood committees, university councils, committees of the unemployed and so on). These two forms of struggle and organisation, Poulantzas argues, would complement and support each other.

In opposition to Marxist orthodoxy, then, Poulantzas does not consider rank and file democracy as a sweeping alternative to representative democracy. He does not think that the two forms of democracy would be radically incompatible with one another, or that they would become opposed poles of attraction for different social classes as in the Leninist conception of dual power. Instead, Poulantzas talks of an ‘organic relationship… between citizens’ committees and universal suffrage assemblies that will themselves have been transformed as a function of the relationship’ (Poulantzas, 2000; 262).

Of course, there are lots of major problems with Poulantzas's suggested strategy (many of which, I think, also plague the Chavez approach). Colin Barker rips many of Poulantzas's ideas to shreds in an article in International Socialism 4 (though I think Barker is unfair to Poulantzas on a number of issues) as does Bob Jessop (in a rather more genteel fashion) in his book, Nicos Poulantzas: Marxist Theory and Political Strategy. I don't want to go into these problems in much depth here - but, basically, they concern the long-term compatibility of representative and participatory forms of democracy, the problem of the perpetual deferment of the 'final and decisive break with capitalism' implicit in this approach, the concomitant danger of a gradual slide into social democratic crisis management on behalf of capital and the problem of organised ruling class violence.

However, the general approach - the combination of struggle within and outside the established structures of the state and the creation of an ‘organic relationship… between citizens’ committees and universal suffrage assemblies that will themselves have been transformed as a function of the relationship’ - seems, to me, a promising one. Or, at least, it's promising as long as the process of transition is not seen as a smooth and gradual one. A serious rupture must come sooner or later.

* I've put this word in scare quotation marks, because I'm reluctant to term parliamentary democracy 'bourgeois democracy'. This idea, I'm afraid, is nastily reminiscent of the 3rd International's position on western, capitalist democracy - that democratic rights under advanced capitalism are unreal, purely formal and wholly illusory. The phrase 'bourgeois democracy', for me, goes hand in hand with the blanket dismissal (Lenin I'm afraid was just as guilty of this as his successors) of parliamentary democracy as a straightforward 'swindle'. On the contrary (and I'm sure this is what Paul Foot writes in his recent book) democratic rights and liberties under capitalism are real - just necessarily partial, truncated and manipulated in order that they do not undermine the power of the ruling class.

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