Following excerpts adapted from the author’s article originally published in marxist.com
by Alan Woods
The hatred the ruling class showed towards Chavez was the hatred of the rich for the poor, of the exploiter for the exploited. Behind this hatred there was fear – fear for the loss of their wealth, power and privileges. It reflected the fundamental class division of society. And it was never eliminated. If anything, it grew steadily in intensity until his death, and after it.
I cannot remember a campaign of such ferocity in the media as that which was unleashed against Hugo Chávez during his lifetime. Never has there been such an outpouring of hatred, malice, bile and poison. Never has the so-called free press resorted to so many distortions,, falsifications and outright lies. And the avalanche of filth keeps pouring out.
The spiteful arguments of the enemies of the Revolution to the effect that Chávez is a dictator were always ironic. Whatever you think about Hugo Chávez, he was certainly no dictator. He won more elections and other electoral processes than any other political leader in the world.
In fact, the Bolivarian revolution has been extraordinarily lenient with its opponents who, do not forget, organized an illegal coup against a democratically elected government in 2002. They seem to complain a lot about alleged ill treatment, but I see no basis for these complaints.
For years the pro-opposition media was allowed to slander the President in the most scandalous way, to call for his overthrow and even assassination. Do you think that would be permitted in the United States? RCTV, Globovisión, Venevisión, all the privately owned TV channels played a very active role in organizing the 2002 coup. If any British television channel had done one tenth of the things they did, it would have its license withdrawn before it could say “David Cameron” and its owners would find themselves on trial under the Anti-Terrorist Laws. In Venezuela it took over four years for action to be taken against any of them, when RCTV was denied the renewal of its open to air licence, but allowed to continue to broadcast over cable.
Even so, the opposition has complained that the Presidential election of April 14 has been called too soon. But if the government had not called elections, as it had the duty to do according to the Constitution, they would be complaining of dictatorship. Nobody has prevented the opposition from standing in elections. The problem is that they have lost. But that is democracy! The opposition, if it is to be truly democratic, must begin by respecting the will of the majority of the people and not to use its economic levers and control of the media to sabotage the democratic will of the people.
The role of the individual in history
Marxism does not deny the role of the individual in history. It merely asserts that individuals, no matter how capable, are never free agents. Their role is always limited and conditioned by circumstances beyond their control. But when a particular concatenation of circumstances arises, it requires men and women of a certain type to take advantage of them to move millions of people into action.
Without two men, Lenin and Trotsky, the Russian Revolution of 1917 would never have succeeded. Yet these same two men for most of their lives found themselves in a tiny minority, isolated from the masses and unable to influence events in a decisive way. Without the Caracazo in February 1989, it is not impossible that Hugo Chávez might have remained an army officer pursuing a normal military career unknown to the public.
But there is another side to the question. Without his actions, it is also possible that those tragic events would have passed into history as a mere footnote. Venezuelan society and politics would have returned to that monotonous routine determined by tradition and the inertia of habit. The personal role of Chávez was decisive. He acted as a catalyst, which, when all the conditions are present, produces a dramatic change.
Towards the end of his life, in Fredrick Engels wrote:
“Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will according to a collective plan or even a definite, delimited given society. Their aspirations clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, the complement and form of appearance of which is accident. The necessity which here asserts itself athwart all accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance. But cut him out and there will be a demand for such a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found.” (Engels Letter to Borgius, 25 January 1894, Marx and Engels Correspondence, pp.467-68)
The important words here are: “good or bad.” The quality of individual leaders is extremely important. If I have a good dentist and he falls ill, I have no doubt that a substitute will be found – “good or bad”. But it is not a matter of indifference to me whether the substitute is a competent dentist or not. Matters are still more serious in the case of war.
If Napoleon had not been present at the battle of Austerlitz, the French would have found a substitute, of course. But whether that substitute would have been capable of winning the battle is quite another matter. It is just the same with revolutions. If Lenin and Trotsky would not have been present in November 1917, we know who would have substituted for them: Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. We also know that under their leadership the Russian Revolution would never have succeeded. “Good or bad” makes all the difference.
An individual’s personality can have an effect on the processes of history. For me, what is interesting is the dialectical relationship between subject and object, or, as Hegel would have expressed it, between the Particular and the Universal. It would be very instructive to write a book on the exact relationship between Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution. That such a relation exists is not open to doubt. Whether it is positive or negative will depend on what class standpoint one defends.
From the standpoint of the masses, the poor and downtrodden, Hugo Chavez was the man who brought them to their feet and who inspired them, by his undoubted personal courage, to acts of unparalleled heroism.
Chávez and the masses
A few years ago, when I was on a speaking tour in Italy, a left wing journalist from Il Manifesto asked me in a perplexed tone: “But Alan, what has the situation in Venezuela got in common with the classical model of the proletarian revolution. In reply, I quoted the words of Lenin: “Whoever wishes to see a ‘pure’ revolution will never live to see it. Such a person talks about revolution and does not know what a revolution is.”
A revolution is, in essence, a situation where the masses begin to participate actively in politics and to take their destiny into their own hands. Leon Trotsky – who, after all, knew a few things about revolutions – answers in the following way:
“The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgment of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Preface, my emphasis)
This is certainly the case in Venezuela. The awakening of the masses and their active participation in politics is the most decisive feature of the Venezuelan Revolution and the secret of its success.
The relationship between Hugo Chávez and the masses was a very complex and dialectical one. I had occasion to see this for myself many times when I attended the mass rallies where he addressed the people. He aroused colossal enthusiasm and devotion. We saw the same emotions on the streets of Caracas on the days before and after his funeral.
When Chávez spoke to the workers and peasants, the effect was always electric. On such occasions, one could sense a kind of chemical reaction between Chávez and the masses. There was no mistaking the intense loyalty felt by the poor and downtrodden masses to this man. Hugo Chávez for the first time gave the poor and downtrodden a voice and some hope. That is the secret of the extraordinary devotion and loyalty they have always shown him. He aroused them to life and they see themselves in him.
Chavez’s enemies on the right could never understand the reason for this. They could not understand it because they are organically incapable of understanding the dynamics of the revolution itself. The ruling class and its intellectual prostitutes can never accept that the masses have a mind and personality of their own, that they are a tremendously creative force that is capable not only of changing society but also of administering it. They can never admit such a thing because to do so would be to admit their own bankruptcy and confess that they are not a necessary and indispensable social agent endowed with a God-given right to rule, but a superfluous and parasitic class and a reactionary obstacle to progress.
But it was not only the bourgeois who were incapable of understanding what was happening in Venezuela. Many on the Left were equally unable to understand this phenomenon. Incapable of placing themselves on the standpoint of the masses, they adopted a haughty attitude, as if the masses whose name they were always invoking were ignorant children who needed to be educated by them. Unfortunately for these “Lefts”, the masses showed not the slightest interest in these would-be educators or their lessons.
How can we explain the peculiar chemistry that existed between Hugo Chávez and the masses? It is true that he possessed unique gifts as a communicator: a powerful personality, a penetrating intellect and a profound understanding of the psychology and aspirations of the masses. However, the real secret is to be found, not in the realm of psychology, but in the relations between the classes.
The masses saw themselves reflected in Chávez. They identified themselves with him as the man who first awakened them to political life and who has given voice to their aspirations. They personify the Revolution in him. For them, Hugo Chávez and the Revolution was one and the same thing. I wrote about my impressions when I first saw this in April 2004:
“As he spoke, I was able to watch the reaction of the masses on the big screen behind the president. Old people and youngsters, men and women, the overwhelming majority working class, listened intently, straining on every word. They applauded, cheered, laughed and even wept as they stood there. This was the face of an aroused people, a people that has become aware of itself as an active participant in the historical process – the face of a revolution.”
The process cut both ways. Chávez drew his strength from the support of the masses, with whom he identified fully. In his manner of speaking – spontaneous and completely lacking in the stiff formality of the professional politician – he connected with them. If there was sometimes a lack of clarity, even this reflected the stage in which the mass movement found itself. The identity was complete.