4 reasons to prioritize the study of the Bolivarian Revolution

The Russian Revolution has a disproportionately prominent position in the imaginations of modern revolutionaries in the West. Regardless of how smart and insightful Lenin was, and the trailblazing  efforts of the Bolsheviks, the hard truth is that the Russian Empire in the early 1900s was a totally different society than the ones we are dealing with today. Instead of focusing so much on the Russian Revolution, would-be revolutionaries should put much more energy into studying the Bolivarian Revolution, which is still playing out in Venezuela today, and which will have continent-wide ramifications. Now of course, the Bolivarian Revolution can be a controversial topic, and there are a lot of disagreements within the radical left about whether it is “truly socialist” or whatever; but regardless of these debates, I think we can all agree on the basic fact that the last couple of decades have seen some truly remarkable experiments in revolutionary praxis happen in Venezuela.

The first and most obvious reason to study the Bolivarian Revolution is that it is actually contemporary, starting in the 1990s and continuing today, as opposed to taking place 100 years ago during a totally different historical context. It started at the dawn of the information age, during an era of relative peace and a uni-polar US-controlled world order, and rebelled against neoliberal capitalism. These factors still mostly hold today, although the geopolitical context is certainly changing quite a lot, with the rise of China and Russia as economic and military rivals to the US, respectively. Compare this to the situation in the early 1900s. Basic technologies we take for granted today, like electricity and oil-based transportation, were just barely getting off the ground; the world was getting ravaged by vicious wars between evenly-matched imperial powers, in the worst violence that humanity has ever seen; and capitalism, in its modernist-developmental phase, was non-existent or peripheral to many regions that were still largely feudal in nature — such as Tsarist Russia.

Second, the Bolivarian Revolution took place in a highly urbanized country, which is again a stark contrast to Russia in 1917 (~20% urban), or really any country that saw a revolutionary socialist movement take power in the 20th century, like China, Vietnam, or Angola (Cuba is a possible exception, since in 1960 it was almost 60% urban). This is a huge factor for revolutionary politics, since the socio-economic and political dynamics of cities are extremely different than that of the rural countryside. Cities tend to be “fully capitalist”, with people totally subsumed by markets and wage-labor. In rural areas, markets have a presence but tend to exist alongside other social relations. The economic basis is also wildly different, with cities being orientated around industrial and service sectors, while rural areas revolve around energy and resources (agriculture, mining, etc), and corresponding differences in class and social composition. Given that the West is heavily urbanized, we should look closely at how radical politics has taken such deep roots within Venezuela.

Third, the Bolivarian Revolution was largely a peaceful process that combined electoral politics with autonomous social movements. This is quite novel in the history of revolutionary socialism; the closest parallel to this was the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s, which only lasted three years before being overthrown by a military coup. Chavez’s democratic road to power is crucial to study, given how hegemonic and popular democratic institutions generally are in the US, other developed countries, and wide swathes of the Global South. Despite the structural limitations of bourgeoisie democracy, its hegemony means that revolutionaries have to figure out some way to engage with it — albeit in a very different way than Western electoral parties, socialist or otherwise, have done so thus far. Hence the need to learn from the electoral experiences of Venezuelan socialists. The key lesson is probably in the relationship between electoral politicking and non or extra-electoral organizing, which has taken place across a dizzying number of cooperatives, clinics, affinity groups, neighborhood associations, etc., and how they feed into each other — a process that is much more complicated and interesting than current debates on the matter in the US and the West have acknowledged thus far.

Fourth, the Bolivarian Revolution is a revolution based on oil. The Chavez administration has used Venezuela’s oil industry as the material base for organizing and mobilizing the Venezuelan masses, turning its huge profits into funding for the aforementioned network of grassroots cooperatives and associations. This worked as long as oil prices were high (which was an explicit policy goal of Chavez), but their collapse has been the key factor in the recent crisis and potential end of the Bolivarian Revolution. This whole experience is an important lesson in the relationship between political economy and revolutionary strategy, and strategic questions about revolution and global processes — namely, imperialism and climate change. Venezuela’s oily socialism was dependent on exports to the US, which is obviously untenable for any serious revolutionary project in the long-term. And dependence on oil is itself untenable given the ongoing climate crisis. The (failed) attempts of the Bolivarian Revolution to break from US imperialism and fossil fuels must be studied; whether we can figure out how to actually overcome our material entanglement with US imperialism and fossil fuels will make or break all future revolutionary struggles.

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