Last Saturday around 50 people gathered in London for the Marxist.com Day School on Latin America. Alan Woods and Jorge Martin, who both just came back from Cuba, spoke on the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions.
Alan Woods started the meeting by pointing out the significance of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. After the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution this was one of the greatest events in human history. Millions of ordinary workers overthrew the old tyranny of Batista and they began the task of the socialist transformation of society. Alan compared the Cuban Revolution with the Russian Revolution and pointed out that on the basis of a planned economy Russia was able to become the second power in the world. The Soviet Union made tremendous steps forward which needed to be defended at all costs. However, nationalisation must always be accompanied by the democratic control and management of the workers. Alan, pointing to the backwardness of the country, explained the rise of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. After the fall of the Soviet Union large parts of the bureaucracy transformed themselves into capitalists.
This process is also a danger for the Cuban revolution. A counterrevolution in Cuba would be disastrous for the Cuban people and Latin America in general. Alan referred to Fidel Castro's speech in November last year where he said that the Cuban Revolution is not irreversible and that bureaucracy and corruption are a very real danger. Therefore a defence of the revolution requires a critical examination of the past and the present.
Alan then began to talk about Che Guevara. He warned against Che being seen merely as an icon, as a fetish, quoting Krupskaya, Lenin's widow who complained that her husband had been turned into a harmless icon. Revolutionaries can be transformed into meaningless icons.
Alan explained how Che Guevara, through seeing all the injustice around him, developed a social consciousness during his trips around Latin America in his youth. He took notes of this and saw the big contrasts in society.
Alan Woods pointed out that this was a continent which had almost everything in terms of resources and which had a rich agriculture. Sadly, in Argentina today, which was once the 10th industrial nation of the world, children are dying of hunger. Throughout Latin America there is a lot of illiteracy, a clear sign that capitalism has failed. Cuba showed that all these basic problems of health and housing can be solved relatively quickly on the basis of a planned economy.
Coming back to Che Guevara, Alan explained the influence of the military coup in Guatemala in 1954 on Che's thinking and commitment to revolutionary struggle. Che Guevara was in the Central American country in 1954 during the Jacobo Arbenz government. Arbenz's attempt to carry out a modest programme of agrarian reform clashed directly with the interests of the US multinational, United Fruit. Alan pointed out that the then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was a part owner of United Fruit and his brother Allen Dulles, then the head of the CIA, had also worked as a lawyer for the company. In the end, covert operations by the CIA led to the overthrow of Arbenz. These events must have left an impression on Che's thinking because it showed the limits of parliamentarism.
Then Alan outlined the events of the actual Cuban Revolution, how the US colony freed itself from its colonizers. The heroism of the Cuban revolutionaries consisted in their raising the banner of armed insurrection, even if the Communist Party described Castro as an adventurer. The Cuban Communist Party, called the Peoples' Socialist Party, was under Stalinist domination and had even participated in the first Batista government with two ministers. It is clear that the revolution had the support of the masses and Alan stressed that it is often overlooked that in the Cuban Revolution the working class played a very significant role and that they organised a general strike lasting several days.
The guerrillas who were now in power didn't have a socialist program but rather an advanced programme of national democratic revolution, including agrarian reform. But even this programme clashed with the interests of the capitalists, the landlords and their rulers in the US. The Cuban revolutionaries remained firm in the face of sabotage and invasion by imperialism and ended up by nationalising all US property and abolishing capitalism in a short space of time.
Here Alan referred to Hugo Chavez, who has said several times that he had made a mistake in believing that somehow it was possible to reconcile far-reaching social reforms with capitalism. Castro drew the same conclusion, and Alan pointed out that in essence this is the same process as the one that took place in Russia with the debate between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The basic problems of society can only be solved by transforming the bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution. That is what the Permanent Revolution is all about, which was confirmed in the Cuban Revolution and which was a conclusion Che had also drawn.
Interestingly, Alan said that a few weeks ago he had spoken to an old Trotskyist in Cuba who worked together with Che Guevara in the Ministry of Industry. He read out several quotes by Che, which have only recently been published, but which clearly show that Che was completely opposed to the Stalinist theory of two stages. This led to clashes with the Communist Parties in Latin America. Che Guevara firmly opposed the idea of “peaceful coexistence” and stated clearly that the alternative was “either socialist revolution or a caricature of revolution”.
Early on, Che also warned of the danger of the bureaucratization of the revolution. His idea was clearly one of spreading the revolution internationally (“to create two, three, many Vietnams”). That idea is a hundred percent correct, Alan said, but the mistake Che made was a tactical one and his theory of “focismo” did not work out in other countries since the ruling class was well prepared for it this time and did not allow itself to be taken by surprise. As soon as the first foco was created they crushed it.
In Bolivia, for example, there was a great working class tradition. But Che Guevara, instead of linking up with the Bolivian proletariat, which was very advanced, went to the jungle to start a guerrilla war. Alan pointed out that one reason for this decision might have been his lack of trust in Monje, the leader of the Bolivian Communist Party who promised to set up a basis in the cities but in practice did not do anything. Tragically, Che Guevara was killed in 1967 in the same country. Alan explained how his criticism of the Soviet bureaucracy had led Che to review his own ideas and opinions and that during the guerrilla struggle in Bolivia he was carrying a book by Trotsky, probably his History of the Russian Revolution.
After Alan spoke the audience asked a variety of questions on guerrilla warfare, about why the working class is the key factor in a socialist revolution and about democracy in general. Also some comrades spoke about the debate on the question of the economy and economic policies that took place in Cuba between Che Guevara on the one hand and Carlos Rodriguez and the Soviet advisers on the other. After dealing with these Alan issued a warning: “Because of the isolation and the blockade, there are severe economic problems in Cuba. Many people can't make ends meet and have to engage in semi-illegal activities to survive.” Paraphrasing Marx in the German Ideology, he warned that in these conditions of scarcity “all the old crap can revive”, with people seeking a way out on an individual basis, which in effect is the psychological basis for a restoration of capitalism.
How to tackle this? Here Alan repeated what he had said earlier in the meeting about Lenin's four conditions as explained in State and Revolution. The first condition is for free elections for anybody who defends the revolution and the nationalised economy. The second is the right of recall of every official (workers' democracy). Thirdly there should be no standing army but the army of the people and finally everyone should participate in bureaucratic tasks so that if everybody is a bureaucrat, nobody can become a bureaucrat.
“You cannot attack bureaucracy with more bureaucracy”, Alan said. Bureaucracy cannot be tackled from the top but only by control from below, by the workers themselves. Since the root cause of bureaucracy is the isolation of the Revolution, the spreading of the revolution to Venezuela, Bolivia, and the whole of Latin America as a socialist revolution, is crucial. The Venezuelan and Cuban revolutions stand together or fall together.
Finally Alan concluded that the main task ahead is two-fold. First of all it is our duty to defend the Cuban Revolution and in effect to create a united front to do just that. But that is not enough. Equally important is to open the debate and to discuss openly the problems facing the Cuban Revolution and how to overcome them.
After Alan Woods it was time for Jorge Martin to speak about workers' control in Venezuela. Jorge also just recently returned from Cuba and has been to Venezuela several times. He started off by saying how significant it is that we are discussing workers' control now. The last time this was an issue in Britain was thirty years ago, when workers' control was also on the agenda in Britain itself. Thanks to the experience in Argentina and now also Venezuela, this discussion has made a comeback.
The first expropriation in Venezuela happened only one year ago when Chavez expropriated the Venepal paper mill in Moron. However, we need to go back to 2002 to see the broader context of the developing process. Back then during the bosses’ lockout the owners shut the gates of the factory, and while sometimes workers didn't protest and simply went home, there was a lot of protest and appeals were made to open up the factories again. “We are not on strike”, a lot of workers said. This was not just a conflict between workers and bosses but it was also a political struggle. The bosses wanted to sabotage the economy in order to overthrow Chavez, and locking out the oil sector was the obvious tactic.
However, this is where the first instances of workers' control appeared in Venezuela. Before 1998 it was always very hard for workers to get organised and unionists sometimes had to work in semi-clandestine conditions. Not so now. Soon after the April coup in 2002 a national meeting took place in which 300 trade union activists took part. One of the slogans put forward then was “factory closed, factory taken over”. Interestingly, Chavez heard this slogan and has been mentioning it ever since. Jorge explained how this shows how permeable Chavez is to the ideas of the workers. This is in stark contrast to Lula in Brazil or Kirchner in Argentina, who have used the state to evict the workers from the occupied factories. In Venezuela, on the other hand, the state actually encourages the workers to occupy abandoned factories, with support of the National Guard in some cases.
During the lockout in December 2002, oil workers started to take over the refineries, the oil tankers, and in effect the whole of this very complex industry. In Puerto la Cruz there actually never was any form of sabotage precisely because the workers were well prepared in advance and prevented the lockout from taking place.
Despite the paralysis of the industry and the taking away of essential computers and passwords, the workers in the oil industry managed to start running the industry again. The important thing is that they suddenly realized they didn't need any bosses or managers at all to do this and in effect they managed to run the industry better and more efficiently than before. Whereas before there was a myth in the minds of the workers that a meritocracy of specialists was needed to run this complicated branch of industry properly, the concrete day-to-day experience proved that this was not true. The workers even said, “if we can run PDVSA [the national oil company], we can run the country”, which, needless to say, is a very advanced conclusion. This whole process was all the more remarkable because the oil workers in Venezuela have never been an advanced layer of the working class. In effect they have always been privileged and been bought off. The last national strike of oil workers dated back as far as 1936!
After this first instance of workers' control in Venezuela, there was a new pulse when a lot of smaller companies were declared bankrupt. These bankruptcies were often fraudulent and was a way for the bosses to sabotage the economy. That is the point when workers started occupying factories as soon as they was closed down by the owner.
The first and foremost company taken over under workers' control was Venepal. Jorge recalled the anecdote that for years a certain machine had been in a state of disrepair. The owner at the time argued that the missing piece could only be replaced by a new piece coming from Germany. As soon as Venepal was nationalised, however, the workers made the piece themselves and repaired the machine!
Here Jorge also said a few words about the role of the Corriente Marxista Revolucionaria. This organisation, which is part of the International Marxist Tendency, argued from the beginning for Venepal to be nationalised under workers' control. This at the time was ridiculed by some ultra-left groups on the grounds that the Chavez government was “bourgeois” and would never do this. The workers, however, took over this slogan, and later on president Chavez did sign the agreement declaring Venepal to be nationalised under the control of the workers.
After that Jorge spoke about the experience in ALCASA, the aluminium factory employing 160 workers. Here a former guerrilla was appointed head of the factory by the government, but interestingly he said: “I will be the last director appointed by the government.”
One point Jorge stressed was the question about cogestion, which literally means “co-management”. This can be interpreted in two ways: in a bourgeois way, as it had been implemented in Europe at one point, or the way most Venezuelan workers understand it, that is as workers' control. Jorge gave the example of Yugoslavia, where workers in fact competed against each other. He said that this experience had been discussed in Venezuela and that there was a consciousness that workers should not become the individual owners of factories but rather that factories should be run by the workers for the benefit of the wider community.
Jorge explained that the whole process of workers' control and factory occupations had so far only affected a very small number of companies, but that it had the potential to spread widely and if it had not done so yet this was mainly because of the lack of a clear leadership on the part of the trade union leaders of the UNT.
A discussion was opened in which a number of comrades pointed at the experience of workers control in Britain in the 1970s and the reasons why that movement was defeated in the end. They stressed that workers' control can only be a temporary phenomenon and that unless it advances towards the democratic planning of the whole economy, i.e. socialism, then it will inevitable be isolated and destroyed.
In his summing up Jorge Martin explained how the revolution in Venezuela is probably the most advanced part of the world revolution, but that at the same time it is part of a more general process of the heightening of the class struggle which will eventually lead to revolutionary processes developing around the world. Periods such as this only happen once in a generation and we need to be prepared for that by gathering the most advanced activists in the workers’ and youth movement in one international Marxist tendency.
All in all it was a very fruitful Saturday for all those present. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the discussion and the ideas and £250 was raised in the collection.