Venezuela's Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Innovative Politics

Venezuela's Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Innovative Politics

by Steve Ellner

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Teodoro Petkoff and the other members of the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) in Venezuela had aroused the ire of the orthodox communist leaders by claiming to be both authentic communists and true nationalists, not bound by the dictates of either the Moscow or Maoist/Beijing wings of the party. To infuriate the traditionalists even further, Petkoff and his associates succeeded in being more than isolated critics, as MAS quickly eclipsed the traditional Venezuelan Communist Party and became that country's leading leftist group.

The author places MAS in its international national, and historical contexts in order to determine the extent to which it is a unique communist party, as it claims to be. He traces the theory of "national democratic revolution, " which MAS rejects, back to Lenin, and discusses the Latin American left's reevaluation of that thesis. Ellner examines the guerrilla movement in Venezuela, the student movement of the late 1960s, and the emergence of the "New Left" in other countries, especially noting their influence on the formation of MAS. He also discusses the group's role in Venezuelan elections and it's relations with the other parties.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822378136
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 1 MB

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Venezuela's Movimiento al Socialismo

From Guerrilla Defeat to Innovative Politics

By Steve Ellner

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0808-9


The International Setting

When MAS was founded in January 1971, the party closely identified itself with the international Communist movement from which it had emerged, to the extent that it baptized itself the "New Communist Force." MAS, however, quickly discarded the Communist label and thereafter disclaimed systematic adherence to Leninism and even Marxism. This rejection of isms is consistent with the party's claim to uniqueness, specifically, that its policies are new and its message original. In addition, MASistas have raised the banner of "the Venezuelan road to socialism" and have vigorously denied that they have been influenced by other Communist parties, particularly those of Europe.

MASistas often maintain that the view of MAS as an outgrowth of imported models (such as Eurocommunism) is an example of the erroneous tendency to deny originality of thinking to Latin Americans, and to attribute political and cultural developments throughout the continent to influences from abroad. In claiming to be uniquely Venezuelan, MAS has been reluctant to develop exclusive ties with political parties of similar ideological orientations in other nations, or to regularly attend conferences of international political movements.

Just as MAS has not made a consistent effort to insert itself in an international setting, it has also been uninterested in claiming for itself a place in the historical-political context of Venezuela. Unlike other cultural, political, and religious movements of all times, MAS has not systematically analyzed its nation's recent history in order to closely identify itself with a particular political tradition. Having rejected Communism, with its relatively important presence in Venezuela over the last half-century, MAS has been cut off from the past. MAS historians have even written off the socioeconomic and political conditions in Venezuela preceding MAS's emergence as irrelevant to the party's basic concern of achieving democratic socialism and incompatible with the party's main strategy, which is seen as applicable only in recent times. In short, MAS's ahistorical attitude and its rejection of imported models creates the impression that the party lacks international and historical links, or that any effort to establish such ties is a difficult, if not futile, task.

The MASistas have overstated their case; their party hardly emerged in a vacuum. Trends on the international left and particularly in European Communist parties exerted a certain influence on MAS in its formative stages, as has the social democratic movement in more recent years. In addition, MAS has to be seen in the context of Venezuelan history, since key issues that the party raised were part of ongoing polemics that began long before 1971.

The first two chapters attempt to ascertain the extent to which MAS grew out of these national and international developments. This chapter summarizes the phenomenon known as Eurocommunism in order to explore areas of convergence and dissimilarities; chapter 2 reviews the history of the Venezuelan left. This examination is designed to draw connections between MAS and political movements outside of the context of contemporary Venezuelan politics, a method that is employed in subsequent chapters as well.

The comparative approach is valuable in that studies of this type—as one Latin Americanist has noted in connection with national studies—"are always better understood when seen in comparative perspective." Moreover, comparisons with the European Communist movement indicate the extent to which Eurocommunism played a role in Venezuela. Although direct influence is difficult to prove, especially because the MASistas themselves deny there was any, similarities between the two movements on a wide range of positions would imply that influence was felt. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain the overlap of policies among parties in nations with such widely differing socioeconomic, political, and cultural conditions. Furthermore, MAS's use of slogans coined by the Eurocommunists would suggest conscious emulation. Examining both similarities and dissimilarities provides a basis for measuring the degree to which influence was exerted.

The Emergence and Consolidation of Eurocommunism

The move away from rigid Marxist dogma by European Communists in the 1960s and 1970s was denominated by political pundits as a new ism, called Eurocommunism. In certain respects the doctrines embraced by the Eurocommunist parties represented a thorough break with Communist orthodoxy. Independence from the center of the world Communist movement in Moscow, maintenance of cordial relations with nonleftist parties and willingness to enter into alliance with them, and support for diverse forms of democratic participation both before and after the socialist revolution were increasingly stressed. Left-wing opponents of Eurocommunism claimed that these developments represented an irreversible trend whose product would be social democracy with its renunciation of class struggle and revolution. Events, however, did not bear out this presumably pessimistic prophecy. On the one hand, the French Communist Party (PCF), after flirting with Eurocommunism for several years, by the late 1970s reverted to its former orthodox line. On the other, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), rather than drift away from Marxism, held firmly to its positions, which, although heterodoxical for a Communist party, were not so thoroughly transformed as to threaten its standing in the world Communist movement.

The emergence of Eurocommunism provides an interesting contrast to other disjunctions in Marxism and other movements throughout history. In cases in which the ideology in dispute is deeply rooted and requires an all-encompassing commitment, the split usually produces violent conflict and mutual animosities. In these situations the breakaway is spearheaded by lower-level leaders or the breakaway group claims that the movement has strayed from its original aims and dogma. The Protestant Reformation, for instance, was characterized by both developments. Luther, Calvin, and other religious rebels occupied low places in the church hierarchy and invoked biblical teaching to strike against the Christian establishment and its practices. Likewise, the leaders of the innumerable divisions in the Communist movement over the last hundred years, such as Trotskyism and Maoism, have claimed that Marxism in its pure and original form had been betrayed.

Eurocommunism, on the other hand, did not give rise to internecine conflict, nor were its leaders young rebels who were determined to take on the older members of an establishment. The movement was led by top veteran Communist leaders who, influenced partly by the student upheavals of the late 1960s, wanted the party to strike out in new directions in response to changing conditions and times. They reflected upon their own and their party's past errors of dogmatism while urging their more intransigent comrades to relinquish outdated formulas. Largely absent from these criticisms and self-criticisms were diatribes, sharp personal accusations, and sweeping condemnations.

The Eurocommunists had no intention of severing ties with either the world Communist movement or their own Communist past. Santiago Carrillo, whose Communist Party of Spain (PCE) had most distanced itself from Marxist orthodoxy, acknowledged that maintaining the Communist label was convenient in that its alternative, social democratic thinking, had assumed nonrevolutionary connotations. In addition, thePCE had earned a reputation of heroism during the Civil War and the subsequent repression, which a complete rupture with the past would sacrifice.

Eurocommunist moderation in criticizing orthodoxy was thus dictated by the perceived need to retain membership, however peripheral, in the world Communist movement. In basing their political calculations on the avoidance of a complete rupture with the Soviet Union and its most loyal Communist allies, the Eurocommunists displayed a keen pragmatism, which has been the movement's outstanding characteristic. This skill is further demonstrated by the ability of the Italian Communists to play a significant role in propping up their nation's delicate political edifice and avoiding democracy's total collapse, while at the same time adhering to a philosophy of revolutionary change and representing militant sectors of the nation's working class.

Pragmatism and realism were also attributes of the two outstanding precursors of Eurocommunism, Antonio Gramsci and Palmiro Togliatti, whose contributions we will now turn to. In the years just before the triumph of Mussolini, Gramsci expressed his reservations regarding the Comintern's early sectarian policies only to a close circle of friends, so as not to risk a showdown with the international Communist movement. Gramsci's discretion was typical of other original Marxist thinkers such as José Carlos Mariátegui, Georg Lukács, and the Eurocommunists, who were committed to working within the Communist movement in spite of serious criticisms of its positions.

The legacy that Gramsci left to Eurocommunism, however, was not that of a practical politician but, rather, that of a theoretician. During his extended stay in prison, Gramsci elaborated a strategy for revolution that rejected the facile and automatic application of revolutionary models that had proved successful in Russia in 1917. Gramsci maintained that in European countries with ample democratic experience, Communists had to win "a war of positions" by becoming a dominant force within the nation's institutional structures and winning over large numbers of people to the idea of socialism. This approach was meant to substitute for the Bolshevik model of an "assault on power" when revolutionary conditions were ripe. Russia's backward political state and weak civil institutions in 1917, Gramsci felt, had left the Bolsheviks with no alternative but to establish hegemony through a sudden and forceful seizure of power.

In devising an alternative strategy for European Communists, Gramsci prefigured Eurocommunism in two important respects. First, his postulation that individual characteristics, such as the democratic tradition of the country, bear heavily on the political approach to be followed anticipated the PCI's call for the "Italian Road to Socialism." Second, Gramsci spurned mechanical Marxism, which would have had Communists wait around and prepare themselves for the moment when objective conditions opened possibilities for the seizure of power. Instead, Gramsci embraced a voluntaristic position, which emphasized the initiatives of the Communist Party and its ability to win over large numbers of people to the socialist banner in order to penetrate the power structure in a nonrevolutionary period.

Although Gramsci did not achieve international renown until several decades after his death in 1937, his theories did exert a strong influence on Togliatti, who conducted PCI affairs until his own death in 1964. Toward the end of World War II and in its immediate aftermath, Togliatti displayed a degree of independence from official Communist policy emanating from the Soviet Union. During these years thePCI leadership emphasized alliances with other democratic parties, particularly the Socialists and Christian Democrats, in opposition to fascism, which threatened the nation's fledgling democracy. This policy forced the PCI to tone down its rhetoric and modify other concepts and practices generally associated with the Communist movement. The PCI heads rejected immediate social revolution, which many lower-level party leaders, emboldened by the popular armed resistance to fascism, had supported. Instead, the PCI called for a "democracy of a new type," which would create conditions conducive to socialism at a later date.

Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, the Sino-Soviet dispute, and the student protest movements of the late 1960s all helped undermine the monolithism of the international Communist movement and its claim to being the dominant force on the left throughout the world. Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin and the subsequent liberalization in the USSR had complex and unforeseen repercussions, as shown, for instance, in Hungary, where the situation completely escaped Soviet control, resulting in the invasion of 1956. In the case of Western Europe, those Communists who had long favored greater autonomy for their party vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and particularly intellectuals who had shared misgivings regarding Stalin were given impetus and encouragement.

Communist leaders such as Togliatti and Carrillo also came out in support of change but were particularly cautious lest their parties be overtaken by events, as in Hungary. These leaders had long been closely identified with the Soviet leadership, whose maximum authority, of course, had been Stalin. They feared that talk of the cult of the personality and its natural antidote of collective leadership would spill over to their own parties. Furthermore, Togliatti warned that the denunciation of Stalin could be used by the right-wing enemy to discredit Communism. At the same time he attempted to take advantage of the introspection and internal debate in the PCI set off by the Khrushchev speech in order to advance his own positions, such as the importance of forming alliances with other progressive forces and the uniqueness of the Italian road to socialism. In addition, he called for "polycentrism" in the international Communist movement in response to the steady ascendance of the Soviet Union as a world power, which meant that its survival no longer depended on a subservient bloc of supporters to defend it. The Communists who most contributed to making polycentrism a reality were not "anti-Stalinists" who gained the upper hand in 1956, but rather party leaders like Togliatti and Carrillo, whose loyalty to the Soviet Union up until that point had been unquestionable. Some of those who began to challenge Soviet dominance in the world Communist movement, especially the Chinese, felt betrayed by Khrushchev who, without consulting them, had destroyed an idol of the movement and thus undermined the legitimacy of their own leadership.

Much of the Chinese criticism of the Soviet Union and its allies was initially directed at the PCI, which, more than any other member of that camp, adhered to positions that were contrary to those assumed by Peking. While the Chinese upheld a dogmatic brand of Marxism and assumed a particularly aggressive posture toward the capitalist enemy, the PCI leaders became the foremost defenders of peaceful coexistence and the electoral road to power. According to the Chinese, the PCI was following in the footsteps of Yugoslavia, which had been justifiably expelled from the world Communist movement (specifically, the Cominform) in 1948 and which now, at the prompting of Khrushchev, was being asked to return.

Despite these differences, at least one important Chinese stand was favorably received by PCI leaders. The Chinese insisted that each Communist party, regardless of size, be treated as an equal within the Communist movement, and not be subjected to high-handed treatment by the more powerful parties, or by the Soviet Union in particular. In calling for recognition of the rights of individual parties, the Chinese insisted that criticisms within the movement remain unpublicized and that differences be resolved through consultation and unanimous consent. The PCI leaders sympathized—perhaps even empathized—with China's condition as an outcast because they, too, upheld important differences with the world Communist movement that could later lead to their banishment as well. In light of their similar predicaments, the PCIwas much less strident in its criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party than were other Communist parties (including that of France, which was second in size only to the PCI in Western Europe). By the 1970s the PCI and other Eurocommunist parties refused to attend international conferences called by Moscow for the purpose of condemning China.

The PCI, like the Chinese, assigned great importance to the third world as a locus of political struggle, while tending to minimize the role of Soviet bloc nations in the struggle for socialism. The PCI criticized Soviet leaders for exaggerating the significance of the Soviet economy as a showcase to the world and an example of the viability of the socialist system. The enthusiastic support of the Italians for "third worldism" was different, at least in degree, from the position of the Soviets, who were more critical of the shortcomings of movements that were militantly anti-imperialist but not heavily committed to socialism.


Excerpted from Venezuela's Movimiento al Socialismo by Steve Ellner. Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: MAS's Originality and the Venezuelan Road to Socialism,
1 The International Setting,
2 The National Setting: An Historical Overview of the Venezuelan Left,
3 Division in the Venezuelan Communist Party,
4 Ideology, Policy, and Style,
5 MAS and Unity of the Left: A Comparative Perspective,
6 The Elections of 1973,
7 The Elections of 1978-1979,
8 The Elections of 1983-1984,
9 MAS's Participation in Organized Labor and University Politics,
10 Party Organization and Structure,
11 Internal Currents of Opinion and Factionalism,
1 Excerpt of speech by Leonid Brezhnev at the Twenty-fourth Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR, 1971, printed in Teodoro: Candidato Presidential del MAS,
2 Article signed by "A. Mosinev," published in Pravda, October 20, 1970, and reprinted in Tribuna Popular, November 5—11, 1970,
3 "Necessity of a New Mode of Being Socialist" (Summary of "A New Mode of Being Socialist," document ratified by MAS's Central Committee in February 1974),

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