Chávez and Nonviolence


Onwubiko Agozino – Pambazuka News

Hugo Chavez may have helped to inspire social democratic revolutions across South America in preference to the fruitless decades of violent armed struggles.

As the whole world mourns the passing of a person of African descent, brother Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, it must not be forgotten that although a peace lover, he initially tried to seize power by force through an abortive military coup. When he was pardoned and released from prison for that felony by the brutal dictatorship that he tried to overthrow, he adopted the African philosophy of non-violence which the great Gandhi claimed that he learned from the war-like Zulu in South Africa.

The result was that Chávez won state power through the ballot and not through the bullet (even Malcolm X appears to favour the ballot over the bullet in that eponymous speech of his). Chávez went on to successfully defend the peaceful revolution against a military coup that removed him from power for four days with the explicit approval of the US under George W. Bush.

Chávez subsequently used state power to begin the radical transformation of Venezuela from high levels of illiteracy towards the elimination of the illiteracy with full publicly funded education from the barrios up to university level, from mass landlessness to land re-distribution, and from exclusion to increased political participation by the masses, leading to the appointment of a bus driver as the Foreign Minister. The chief error of Chávez is not that he failed to build the world’s tallest building as the AP reporter sniggered recently, but that he repressed oppositional journalists when he could have battled them with his effective weekly television broadcasts.

Internationally, Chávez did not invade any country or drop bombs on perceived enemies, he did not try to overthrow any country but spoke up for less powerful countries being bullied by the international community and gave subsidized oil to poor neighbours and even to poor citizens of rich countries. He may have helped to inspire similar social democratic revolutions across South America in preference to the fruitless decades of violent armed struggles. The revolutionary theorists from the North are slow to learn from this legacy of the African philosophy of non-violence that could be scoffed at but never completely debunked as a viable alternative to the ‘infantile disorder of left-wing communism’.

On Friday, February 22, Professor Jody Dean visited Virginia Tech from her New York state college to present an Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) – sponsored lecture about her 2012 book, The Communist Horizon, published by Verso. The publishers stated on their blog that the book is a new Communist Manifesto for our time and indicated that the book seeks to unshackle the left from its accommodation with capitalism by challenging the Occupy Movement to transform itself into a political party.

Dean’s lecture started with reference to Garcia Linera, the Vice President of Bolivia who served time in prison for participating in the Tupac Katari Guerrilla Army before running for office. The recent turn towards left-wing victories in elections in South America, according to Dean, are without significant impacts on the living conditions of the poor probably due to the accommodation with capitalism by those leftist regimes.

With colourful slides ranging from Barack Obama (portrayed as a communist leader) to Black Panther Party members marching, with pictures of mass protests in Bangladesh and shots of the Occupy Movement in between, Professor Dean argued that neither Obama nor the Occupy Movement, nor the Third World movements could be said to be communist in any sense. She concluded that what needs to be done is for the left to organize a party to seize power by force, reject the illusion of democracy and institute a dictatorship of the proletariat.

‘And how do you plan to do that without an army, navy or air force?’ one student interjected. It was good to hear the doubts that the students expressed regarding the rejection of democracy under any ideology. As Churchill would put it, democracy is the worst system of government except for all those other alternatives. I agree with the students that we must strive to recover the concept and practice of democracy from their distortions as Chomsky advocates: The anti-globalization movement is more accurately, the global democratization movement whereas a crisis of democracy is exactly right-wing Political Correctness for when the people get involved en-mass as they are supposed to do in a true democracy.

Dean did not deviate from a Eurocentric conception of Marxism that exclusively privileged Western theorists while almost completely ignoring theorists from the global South who made original contributions to that perspective and by ignoring the extent to which Marx himself was influenced by struggles for freedom outside Europe. Her introduction of her lecture with the case of Bolivia should have encouraged her to go beyond the icons of the Black radical tradition to take seriously the theoretical contributions from that tradition especially because she lectured during Black History Month. But she said, in answer to a question, that her book could not cover every detail and that she deliberately left details of the example of the Black Panther Party for future projects and for other researchers. Hmmm.

Dean’s error is not just with the neglect of theorists and unique contributions from the global South but more with her avoidance of what some colleagues at her lecture characterized as the racism of the left in the global North. In her feisty self-defence, she complicated the charge by saying that she felt safe in her city in the state of New York but that poor blacks in the same city did not feel as safe. It is not just poor blacks; poor whites too, in fact all the poor, feel relatively unsafe in what Stuart Hall theorized as ‘societies structured in dominance’.

Dean’s mantra that she (and her non-existent party alone) must seize power by violent means is ridiculous because all she is doing is write tens of books non-violently, and I am happy that the students challenged her on what appeared to be her agent-provocation. As some colleagues insisted, the African philosophy of non-violence has proven more reliable as a revolutionary political strategy, given the decades of guerilla warfare in South America with nothing but genocidal body-bags to show for it until they turned to electoral social democratic strategies that Marx and Engels called for in the Manifesto of the Communist Party (build a party they said, not an army). Dean answered that the reason why Marx and Engels called for social democracy was because democracy was non-existent in their day.

However, Lenin can be said to have practised the exact strategy of Marx and Engels by naming his party the Social Democratic Party. While Lenin acknowledged that his movement had a military wing, he resolutely defended the correct strategies of social democracy against the “infantile disorder of left-wing communism” which opposed participation in bourgeois electoral politics. Lenin also answered his own question that ‘What is to be done’ is to set up a newspaper to organize and educate the people, not a suicide squad, for instance. Dean countered that Lenin was for the dictatorship of the proletariat and could not be called a democrat.

Yet what Lenin called the dictatorship of the proletariat, following Marx, was more like the democratic mobilization of the people through the exercise of what he called hegemony or intellectual and moral leadership but not by force. Gramsci recommend similar strategies with emphasis on intellectual and moral leadership or hegemony but with the originality that he attributed the same strategy to the ruling class which has too few members to rule by force alone. Joe Slovo also defended a similar strategy of national democratic revolution under the leadership of the ANC/CP coalition in South Africa.

Although her book never mentioned South Africa, Dean may counter that the South African revolution leaves a lot more to be desired by retaining capitalism with the consequence that the people continue to suffer but there is no doubt that South Africa achieved a lot politically through non-violent dialogue under Nelson Mandela who was serving a life-sentence for leading the military wing of the African National Congress (the dialogue was opposed by ANC militants who insisted on the defeat of apartheid militarily; “one settler one bullet”, they chanted). However, the dialogue succeeded remarkably compared to the situation in 1980 at the height of the armed struggle but the armed struggle could be said to have contributed indirectly to the success of the dialogue. Surely, no one would like to take South Africa back to the white minority reign of Botha in the 1980s, no matter how imperfect the country remains today.

Similarly, African Americans have been in the vanguard of the moral and intellectual movements to deepen democracy world-wide through non-violent means. Despite a million mutinies and maroon uprisings culminating in the glorious Haitian revolution that CLR James documented, the struggle against slavery was mainly non-violent until the enslavers declared a pro-slavery civil war in an attempt to extend enslavement nationally in the US.

During the Civil Rights revolution, W.E.B. Du Bois was nearly jailed for advocating global peace and he stated in his autobiography that although he was able to defend himself in court against the trumped up charge, the railroading of thousands of innocent African Americans into jail is to blame for the fact that they tend to return to the community with resentment and anger, resulting in more violence in the community. Mohamed Ali was nearly jailed for refusing to fight Vietnamese who had never abused him racially and Martin Luther King Jr. was repeatedly jailed for advocating non-violent resistance to injustice. It is interesting that Dean did not mention the prison-industrial complex during her lecture nor in her book where she only referred to prison camps in the Soviet Union on page 29 and to the prison experience of the Vice President of Bolivia on page 2.

Whereas Malcolm X advocated the principle of ‘By Any Means Necessary’ in the struggle for freedom, he himself adopted non-violent intellectual and moral strategies, just like Martin Luther King Jr. As Dean conceded, the Eastern European revolutions were remarkably non-violent and it could be added that the hijacking of the Arab spring by armed groups has produced worse results compared to what was possible through non-violent resistance. An American trade unionist, who died in 1993, César Chávez, was also a strong advocate of non-violence and was quoted as saying that non-violent struggles can never be defeated because they are patient. Did he influence his name-sake, Hugo Chávez?

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