Lair Of A Squirrel Red

Bonapartism, basic concepts and Chavez by korakious
June 14, 2007, 12:23 pm
Filed under: AWL watch, Chavez, First World Left, Theory, Trotskyists, Venezuela

Jim Denham (of the Alliance for War and Liberalism) has been crticial of Hugo Chavez and his government, calling them ‘a bonapartist formation, with nothing to do with socialism (assuming that by “socialism” you mean the rule of the working class)’. When I posted a Gramsci quote which says that perhaps calling a formation ‘Bonapartist’ is not the be all and end all of the matter Jim responded with ‘[s]o much for basic Marxist concepts’.

I think that position Jim takes here is an interesting one, and worthy of further exploration, especially as it exposes a real weakness in the approach of the British left in general. The Gramsci quote I posted only suggested that establishing something is Bonapartist is not the end of the matter, as it does not stop the need for further enquiry. Denham seems to be insisting that ‘Bonapartist formations’ are a basic concept of Marxist thought, and they tell us that the regime can have ‘nothing to do with socialism’.

The first point to note is that I am not a Trotskyist and I don’t really know that much about the Trotskyist position. This made it hard for me to even think of Bonapartism as a ‘basic concept’ of Marxist thought (I know it gets mentioned in the 18th Brumaire but still). But even if it is a basic element in Marxist thought, calling it a concept really doesn’t seem to help anyone, in fact Jim seems to have become an ideologist, for whom:

[R]elations become concepts; since they do not go beyond these relations, the concepts of the relations also become fixed concepts in their mind.

So, against Jim I raise Lenin, who refuses to acknowledge that Marxism is about ‘basic concepts’ that allow us to pre-judge a given situation. Against such positions Lenin insisted that the ‘very gist, the living soul, of Marxism [is] a concrete analysis of a concrete situation’. So in this respect I think that Gramsci is right and Jim is wrong, just establishing that a given social formation is Bonapartist tells us nothing about its relation to socialism or the emancipation of the working class – instead we have to ask the Marxist question – who benefits?

The Old man himself

The thing is, it seems to me that Trotsky himself realised this when he did his work on Bonapartism. I just randomly skimmed Trotsky’s article The Workers State, Thermidor and Bonapartism and came up with the following extracts:

The overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer the power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society.

In France, the prolonged stabilization of the Thermidorean-Bonapartist regime was made possible only thanks to the development of the productive forces that had been freed from the fetters of feudalism.

And perhaps the kicker is:

Without historical analogies we cannot learn from history. But the analogy must be concrete; behind the traits of resemblance, we must not overlook the traits of dissimilarity.

Essentially what these quotes tell us is that although Napoleon was not the most advanced representative of the bourgeois revolution, he nonetheless preserved and stabilised the growth of the bourgeois revolution in France. What isn’t written here, but perhaps is more to the point, is that Napoleon spread the bourgeois revolution (and you’d think the AWL would love that) to the rest of Europe, as is evidenced by the fact that the Civil Code dominates the continent.

So, even for the paradigm case of Bonapartism, Napoleon himself, it is possible to say that he served a progressive role, in consolidating the gains of the bourgeois revolution, spreading it, and generally not liking feudalism. Of course, Louis didn’t play such a role, but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it is entirely possible that Bonapartism can play a historically progressive role.

Cui Bono?

But of course this is all well and good when we’re talking about bourgeois revolutions (although I seem to remember hear some Trots talking about spreading the gains of October etc.) but the typical response to what I have said is – ‘the emancipation of the working must be the act of the working class itself’ or ‘socialism from below’(!!!). Now, although I think these slogans themselves have to properly put into context, I do agree that the proletarian revolution is always one that will be qualitatively different from every revolution that has preceded it.

So, agreeing with Jim here, I still don’t think it’s the end of the matter. At the very least we need to ask – has Chavez opened a space for the emancipation of the working class? So, rather than just shout ‘Bonapartist (!!!!)’ we need to ask ‘who benefits’ from the Bolivarian revolution, and we need to enquire if it has benefited the working class.

And surely on this level we can say (at the very least) ‘yes’. Chavez has firstly put socialism and the working class on the agenda in Venezuela and indeed the world stage. This must be a good thing for the perspective of the working class. I think the work of Mike Lebotwitz has been instructive here. Even if we disregard Chavez’ concrete policies relating to the economy it is pretty clear he has opened up a space for the working class in a way that has never happened in Venezuela.

He has opened up the political process to the working class, and indigenous people so that it does not lie solely with the oligarchs and its representatives. The ideas of co-management, no matter how limited their application, help smash the myth that the workers cannot do without he bourgeoisie. The barrio healthcare initiatives are helping the Venezuelan workers get back their confidence and dignity.

I think the confidence and dignity argument is and important one, which ought not to be overlooked. In Venezuela the workers may not rule, capitalism may still not be overthrown, the old state machine may not have been smashed, but the working class and its organisations have grown, they are taken seriously, they are confident and organised. Surely this sort of empowerment is the key to any successful self-emancipation.

It is Jim’s prerogative to disagree with my characterisation of Chavez (which was obviously provisional and sketchy), but I hope I have at least shown how a Bonapartist regime might be characterised as ‘progressive’. Hopefully this will at least stop the pointless screams of “Bonapartist!!!!!!!!!” at the mention of Chavez’ name.

Venezuela & Freedom. What would Lenin do? by korakious
May 26, 2007, 8:48 pm
Filed under: Chavez, First World Left, Freedom, Human Rights, Lenin, Theory, Venezuela

Most of you are probably familiar with the fuss kicked up on the bourgeois media when Chavez announced that the license of RCTV, an opposition station in Venezuela would not be renewed. The First World Left, including of course its vanguard, the AWL jumped on the bourgeois liberal media bandwagon, immediately concluding (or repeating their already made, age old analysis of any revolution that is not led by them) that Venezuela was heading down the road of Stalinism, state capitalism, Bonapartism and whathaveyou. Of course, neither the media, nor their “left” lackeys mentioned that the station was not being shut down, but having its license not renewed in a perfectly legal manner, as has happened a number of times in the “Free” World, without protest from either the media or our fellow revolutionary imperialist apologist brothers.

That of course is besides the point because a cursory look at RCTV’s involvement in the coup of 2002 against the democratically elected Chavez government would lead anyone but the most liberal of bourgeois liberals to conclude that the station should have been immediately shut down after the failure of the putsch. You see, the media often forgets to mention that the station was not only actively supporting the overthrow of Chavez, but also practically assisting the putschists by engaging in news blackouts. Now, perhaps the mourners of democracy should take a minute and think in what way any of the “democratic” governments of the West would have responded to a failed coup. Surely most of the participants would have been arrested and the leaders would have probably spent their lives behind bars (if not executed). What happened in Venezuela? The supreme court ruled that the military officers should not stand trial as what happened wasn’t really a coup but a… power vacuum. Oh, the brutality of authoritarian Venezuela! By the way, I would be amused to see how the very concerned about human rights left would respond to a similar situation in their own country. It is very easy to criticise little brown/red (you know, those who need our benevolent leadership; it is after all, the white man’s burden! ) people half way around the world, but it isn’t quite as simple to come up with a response to politically crucial events taking place in your own society.

Anyhow, I am ranting again. What’s interesting here is not the chauvinism-bordering-racism underlying much of the politics of the first world left, but the rush of such groups to publicly defend the democratic rights of a bourgeois media station that is owned by the ruling class, thus throwing class analysis out of the window and subscribing to Jeffersonian notions of the inalienability of rights. See for example the post made by TWP on Shiraz Socialist:

How many of us have “openly called” for the overthrow of capitalism? Well apparently Tariq Ali doesn’t see the irony in his statement about Chavez’s failure to renew a TV licence for the anti-government channel RCTV. By his logic most of the newspapers of the far left could be legitimately closed down in Britain. […]I have always argued for “no platform for fascists” and stand by that argument. However, this isn’t a “fascist” TV station – it simply opposes the government in the strongest terms. That is not a reason for shutting it down

Let’s take the arguments in reverse order. First, if a supporter of Fascism is a Fascist, then it makes sense that a TV station supporting Fascism is a Fascist TV station. One could of course try to argue that a military coup in Latin America might not lead to Fascism but to… something else. I would kindly ask them to stop reading and **** off my internets.

Now, with that out of the way, it would be useful to examine the contradiction inherent in TWP’s support for “No Platform For Fascists” and opposition to the “shutting down” of RCTV, a contradiction that runs deeper than the rather evident fact that RCTV is a Fascist supporter.

I do not wish to examine here whether the “No Platform” approach is correct or not. Let us assume it is. Why do socialists adopt a “No Platform” line on fascism? The evident and right, if a bit simplistic, response is that we do so because fascism is diametrically opposed to the interests of the working class and presents a formidable obstacle to the fight for socialism. So far, so good. But why is that we do not also call for “No Platform” for capitalists as well? Is it because we think that capitalist/liberal views are more legitimate than fascists’? Is it because capitalism is less of an obstacle to socialism and less of a danger to the working class? Of course not. If anything, capitalism has proven to be more resilient than fascism and has now become a threat not only to the working class but to the whole planet. Further, only the most stupendously half-witted liberaloleftie would dare argue that “kick them Pakis out of Britain” is a less legitimate view than “let’s bomb those terrorist A-rabs”. The reason therefore that we do not pursue a “No Platform” policy re capitalism is that we can’t. The whole purpose of “No Platform” is to prevent the poison of Fascist ideology from spreading among the working class, creating vile sectarianism, racism and other niceties. This is totally inapplicable to the hegemonic struggle of socialists against bourgeois ideology; you can’t call for “No Platform” to bourgeois ideology. Why? Because bourgeois ideology is the platform. Every single social structure is permeated by and functions according to bourgeois ideology. Hence the adoption of the Transitional Programme and the need for a War of Position, among other things. It should be clear by now, but it is worth restating. Socialists do not tolerate bourgeois ideology because it is more “legitimate” than Fascism but because not tolerating is a non starter. This brings us back to the first point made by TWP, that of legitimacy.

TWP argues that if we support Chavez’s action on the basis that RCTV supported the coup, then, it would be legitimate for, say, the British government to close down the newspapers of the far left, since they (we) have often supported the violent overthrow of capitalism. TWP here falls to the usual trap of forcing a fictitious universality onto concepts of a divided -ie partial not universal – society. Talking about legitimacy, TWP forgets to ask the crucial question: “for whom?” In a class society, questions of legitimacy, legal or moral, cannot be extracted from the context of class struggle and made into abstract, timeless dicta derived from the sky above. Therefore, if the British state decides to close down socialist newspapers, it will be a perfectly legitimate move for the class interest it represents. For socialists of course, it would be a terrible crime, not because it would take away our “freedom” but because it would severely reduce our efficiency and capability to promote our ideas. The illegitimacy of the act would not consist in a violation of our perceived human rights but in the fact that it would be an attack on socialism. In that manner, the very existence of the bourgeois state and its ideological supports is illegitiate. No action it takes can ever be considered morally acceptable by socialists, apart from that which is forced upon it by the struggle of the working class.

The same goes for human rights. The reason the left usually defends human rights is because attacks on them are made by the bourgeois state with the aim to undermine the fighting power of the working class. Indeed, “universal” human rights were won by workers after decades of painful struggle; there was no right to free speech for socialists for a large part of the 20th century (and one may very well say there won’t be a right to it again, if socialism becomes a powerful political force again), there was no right to shelter and food, no right to education. Socialists support human rights for the working class, but we have no obligation to fight for the right of RCTV owners to back fascist coups. Expecting from socialists to rise in support of freedom of speech for RCTV, is like expecting the Tories to organize demonstrations for the right to strike.

The concerned leftie will reply: “But isn’t the point of socialism to create a society where people are free? How can you increase freedom by curtailing freedom?”. To a limited extent, this is not wrong. I do not subscribe to the tanky notion that freedom in itself, is a bourgeois ideal. The fallacy of the liberalosocialist approach lies, again, in the abstractly universalistic manner it uses the concept of freedom. Like legitimacy, freedom cannot be extracted from its class context. As Lenin points out in The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, one cannot discuss freedom and democracy without asking “for what class?”. The freedom of workers to go on strike restricts the freedom of capitalists to extract profit. The freedom of capitalists to own media curtails the freedom of workers to establish independent media outlets.

Freedom then, within the context of a class society is a question of which side you are on, as the amount of freedom a class has is inversely related to the amount of freedom of its antagonistic classes. Marxists are on the side of the working class and this is why we do not see anything wrong with the Chavez government shutting RCTV down. Had RCTV been a workers’ co-operative or had Chavez moved to silence an oppositional workers’ political group, he would have been on the receiving end of the harshest of criticisms from the Squirrel Vanguard. The only criticism one could level against Chavez is that instead of turning RCTV into a cooperative news outlet, he made it a state owned one. Other than that however, his democratic record with respect to the working class has been brilliant, to put it mildly. Not only has community power greatly expanded under his administration, but in what is probably a world first, the right of recall has been enshrined in the constitution and has already been used by Chavez’s opponents against him.

Perhaps the freedom-loving left (as in opposed to freedom-hating commies like me) should remember that true, universal freedom, can only be the product of a positive transcendence of alienation and therefore, achievable only in a true classless society. And since liberalosocialists don’t quite like “authoritarian” Lenin, I’ll finish this post with a quote by “libertarian” Rosa Luxemburg:

Yes, dictatorship! But this dictatorship consists in the manner of applying democracy, not in its elimination, but in energetic, resolute attacks upon the well-entrenched rights and economic relationships of bourgeois society, without which a socialist transformation cannot be accomplished