If, like me, you cannot help but read propaganda sellotaped to lamp-posts, you will be assuredly aware that, this month and last, many intended to celebrate the centenary of the Bolshevik coup d’état of October/November 1917* (they call it a ‘revolution’ to imply a level of popularity it never had, even among many Bolsheviks). If we have still more in common, you will wonder what there is to celebrate about the opening act in the unbearable tragi-comedy of collectivist power in the former Russian Empire and, latterly, over Eastern Europe. Not to mention the eventual spread of the ‘revolution’ throughout the world. Perhaps you too regret the first decisive step towards the age of totalitarianism taken by an intellectualist oligarchy, replete with historicist fantasies about inevitable ‘laws’ of human development, yet laws which they, paradoxically, through conscious organisation and the seizure of power, had actively to facilitate the victory of.
Perhaps we both abhor the consequently fatal messianism of that self-appointed ‘vanguard’, their Newspeak and the triumph of politics over language (was the coup d’état this not attempted, after all, in the name of ‘the masses’, or the ‘international proletariat’?), their categorisation of the ‘rich’ or of ‘reactionaries’ as ‘insects’ (Lenin), their consideration of the entire Russian peasantry – roughly 80% of the population – as that ‘heavy lump of rural Russia’s sodden earth, stuck fast to its roots’ (Trotsky) to be dragged from them by the revolution, exterminated, in other words, as a ‘class’, a social type, an idea, through state collectivisation and the deliberate use of famine (the policies of Trotsky et. al. before they became Stalin’s); maybe we both shudder at the apparatus of total central economic planning and of political and press and artistic control, of coercion and police-terror (Lenin’s ‘Cheka’) – all of which was in place, or was in the process of being put in place, long before Stalin came to power. But perhaps, above all, we most bitterly deprecate the revolutionaries’ conviction to ‘rid [themselves] once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble of the sanctity of human life’ (Trotsky), itself the logical consequence of a philosophical outlook which denies the very idea of autonomous human nature and freedom on the level of the individual by making a God of economic conditions (Marx), and without which ‘insects’ cannot be squashed, nor millions of peasants reduced to primeval mulch.
Yet the scourge of revolutionary Marxism is not confined to the past. China, North Korea, Cuba, and, perhaps most significantly in light of the huge enthusiasm for it in the last two decades, Venezuela, are all tributaries of, and will chart their courses from, that regrettably deep ideological basin. So, in lieu of the centenary’s celebration, what better way to remember the terrible power of 1917, than to remind ourselves why revolutionary Marxism is nothing to be celebrated in its 2017 incarnation either.
In my last column (Wednesday 20th September), I placed the self-confessed ‘inspiration’ which the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition draws from the example of Venezuela in the context of the reprehensible political patriotism expressed by alienated leftist intellectuals and activists (by no means always the same thing) for foreign tyrannies since the dawn of the Soviet Union. I concluded that this was a cause for some concern to the United Kingdom, and some challenge to the moral and political reputation of the Labour leader and his programme, given that thanks to the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ initiated by Hugo Chavez, which the Right Honourable Mr. Corbyn quite correctly identifies as a legitimately socialist alternative to Western capitalism, Venezuela has become, to the immiseration and coercion of its people, an economic basket-case tending towards ever greater authoritarianism.
Enter: the Queen Mary Marxist Society (QMMS), from which the column received a somewhat vituperative, but, to be fair, at least moderately empirical rebuttal entitled, Setting the record straight on Venezuela. I direct you to peruse it at your leisure on ‘marxiststudent.com’, in the hope that you enjoy your first visit to that particular website as much as I enjoyed mine. In essence however, the writer identifies four areas which, because of the revolution, and according to some highly inadequate statistics (the last three categories do not account for anything beyond 2008), justify inspiration in contrast to what is happening in their British equivalents: i.) Housing; ii.) Education; iii.) Poverty (and inequality); and iv.) Healthcare.
The argument then lurches forward to ‘what’s happening in Venezuela today’ (exactly ‘what’ is unspecified), to claim, magnificently, and without any substantiation, that responsibility in fact lies with the failure of the revolution to ‘rid Venezuela of capitalism altogether’, and with the ‘oligarchs’ who therefore continue to ‘sabotage’ the economy, not with the ‘socialistic measures’ the revolution has pursued. Apparently, it continues, the revolution was not brought to its ‘necessary conclusion’ by Chavez, and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, is deservedly chastised for his readiness to ‘capitulate and compromise’, inviting further ‘aggression from the capitalist class’. So, it is concluded, ‘Corbyn is correct, we should be inspired by…the Bolivarian revolution…inspired to deepen and extend the socialist revolution in Venezuela and internationally’ (my italics).
I will first deflate some of the misleading factual claims. Then I will argue that, in any case, to adopt such a surface level of analysis fails to comprehend the self-destructive nature of the chavista model. In fact, a properly holistic approach demonstrates beyond doubt that the parlous state in which Venezuela finds itself has everything to do with the ‘socialist revolution’. A reality which no amount of hollow, ominous jargon about saboteurs can obscure. Indeed, tempting as it is to dismiss such Marx-speak as naïve prattle, it is only fair to deal with political opponents as if they mean and fully comprehend the implications of what they say, which in this case, is to occasion their moral condemnation: is it not rather hard to stomach the criticism of Maduro as a ‘compromiser’ when he is currently locking up his political opponents? We may only wonder exactly how much further the QMMS would have him go to truly secure the ‘gains of the revolution’. For shame.
In terms of healthcare, the QMMS claims that from ‘1998-2006, infant mortality [fell] by more than one third’. This is roughly true, but why stop at 2006? Probably because by 2010, the rate had climbed back up to 15.2 deaths for every 1,000 births (Source: CEDICE – used for all).
What about neonatal mortality? The same trend applies – 11.9 to 9.5 to 10.9 deaths per every 1,000, from 1999 to 2007 to 2010. Worst of all, maternal mortality increased doggedly throughout the Chavez years: from 51 to 55.1 to 69.7 deaths per 100,000 births, 1998 to 2006 to 2010 – the final low not experienced since the seventies. Finally, the relative incidence of disease, in, for example malaria, has increased dramatically since 1999, from 90.8 cases per 100,000 to 151.9 in 2007, at which point the government stopped publishing the statistics.
It is further claimed that the ‘number of primary care physicians in the public sector increased twelve-fold from 1999-2007’. No source is cited. So let us consider that as of 2015, according to the Venezuelan Medical Federation, 57% of trained physicians had fled the country. This corroborates a separate report carried out at the Simón Bolivar University in the same year that 13,000 more doctors had migrated since 2009, and Claudia Vargas’ 2010 study into the intentions of medical students, 39.7% of whom said they would ‘definitely emigrate’, and 26.9% that they would ‘probably emigrate’ – figures which by 2015 had risen to 59.3% and 28% respectively (Source: effectococoyo.com). Furthermore, the medical faculty of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), recorded a yearly drop in postgraduate students between 2003 and 2010, from 1,986 to 747. The statistic lazily and inappropriately cited by the QMMS therefore fails to conceal the increasingly inhospitable reality of the failing Venezuelan healthcare system for its practitioners and, by extension, its patients. But the QMMS has descended to depths of obscurantism beyond even this: the quoted figure is in fact artificially inflated by the massive influx of Cuban medical personnel following the oil-for-healthcare deal between the two states in 2000, which saw approximately 30,000 doctors enter Venezuela (Source: Javier Corrales, The Logic of Extremism: How Chavez Gains by Giving Cuba So Much).
This rather important detail, conveniently left out by the QMMS, keenly illustrates the extent to which the ailing domestic system was propped up by outside assistance. Though perhaps the QMMS is proposing an equivalent UK-Cuba deal to paper over the structural problems facing the NHS as well. In any case, what good is a doctor, Cuban or Venezuelan, if he cannot work? By 2013, of 10 major hospitals in Caracas, the nation’s capital, 69% of operating theatres and 52% of beds were inoperative (Source: CEDICE).
As for education, the QMMS claim that between 1999 and 2007 enrolment rates in higher education doubled. Again, it is true that enrolment has increased drastically, but this fact can only give the desired effect – i.e. ‘what a wonderful world!’ – when a lot of other information is left out. For one thing, universities, whose budgets have shot up according to intake, are seldom allocated more than 31% of the funding they request (Source: CEDICE), and the economic crisis has not improved this. As intake increases therefore, quality of education decreases. Not that many of these ‘universities’ exist to provide the kind of education we would (or should) recognise in the West. Under the programme for ‘21st Century Socialism’, officially promoted as of 2006, it became a stated goal of the government to create generations of students committed to the ideology of the state. Hence the conversion of universities into so-called ‘ideological universities’, and the huge increase in enrolment accounted for by these non-autonomous institutions. Now, the brainwashing of the young and the abolition of institutions of free enquiry and critical thought is doubtless a wet-dream for the QMMS, but for anyone with the slightest hint of (Classical) Liberal principle this cannot be anything but nightmarish. Thankfully, many Venezuelan students are on the right side of this question. As memorably demonstrated in 2007 by the student-led protests against Chavez’s attempt to bring the country’s oldest private television network, RCTV, under state control.
Yet is not enough to deal just with the parts, we must scrutinise the whole. How, in other words, did Chavez’s Venezuela work? And why do house-building programmes and the reduction of poverty, as cited by the QMMS, not vindicate ‘21st Century Socialism’? But there is a further question to answer before we begin: what exactly is ‘happening in Venezuela today’? Since our friends in the Marxist society didn’t care to specify, here is a rough sketch: inflation stands at 700%; the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP, as of 2016, is 14.6% (Source: IMF); according to the Heritage Foundation, Venezuela’s economic freedom score has declined from 60 – the regional average – to 27 as of 2017; industrial production is, in key sectors, in free-fall following nationalisation, steel production for instance, has dropped from 4.3 million tonnes in 2007 to 307,000 in 2016 (Source: CPS economic bulletin, 6th Sep); a similar story in general domestic production, including food production, has led to an almost total dependence on imports: 70% of the foodstuffs consumed in Venezuela are now imported (Source: panampost). Economic indicators however are best understood in human terms: such has been the breakdown in civil society wrought by economic and political turmoil that 60 people on average are now being murdered every day (Source: CPS); tens of thousands of refugees (47,095 to be exact – Source: Vice) flooded into Colombia this January, double the number for the year before, and applications for asylum in the United States were up 160% from 2015-16 (Source: CNN). Overall, since the Bolivarian Revolution began, according to official estimates, 1,128,816 Venezuelans have left the country; according to the International Migration Laboratory at the Latin American Studies Association, it is closer to 2.5 million (Source: effectococuyo.com). If this is voting with feet, it is a stampede against socialism. Finally, just as in the Soviet Union yesterday, the life of the average Venezuelan today is dominated by one thing: the queue. Chronic shortages of all manner of basic goods induce citizens to spend up to 12 hours in line for items which may never even materialise (Source: Panampost).
That this is the legacy of Venezuela’s socialist model is clear if we distinguish its fundamentally cosmetic and short-term benefits (those of a money-throwing state in an increasingly centrally-controlled economy) for certain sections of the population, from its gaping structural flaws, which have encouraged a long-term crisis so profound as to render not only those ‘benefits’ redundant in light of the associated costs, but their trumpeting by Venezuelan officials and Western leftists absurd, not to mention sinister. To take the most basic unit as our example of the former – also given by the QMMS – the first thing to say about the significant reduction of poverty in Venezuela under Chavez – which, according to the World Bank, dropped from 49% in 1998 to 27.7% in 2008, rising to 29.4% in 2013 – is that it was coterminous with the general trend in South America. In 1990, 12.2 % of the regional population was living on $1.25 per day. As of 2014, the figure had fallen to 5.5% – despite an increase in population of over 100 million (Source: The Borgen Project). In fact, when we set the experience of Venezuela in proper regional context, the ‘achievements’ of the Bolivarian Revolution in terms of poverty, revelled in by left-wingers, are by no means unique. That is unique in the sense those supporters of the Chavez project would have you take it. As it happens, Venezuela does distinguish itself amongst its neighbours in this area: by lagging behind the leaders. Firstly, the average poverty rate for the region is 21%. Furthermore, at around 10% of their populations, Uruguay, Argentina, and, most significantly given its liberal-market antithesis to ‘21st Century Socialism’, Chile (now the region’s wealthiest country), exhibit Latin America’s lowest rates – and all without, it must be stressed, inducing a state of national nervous-breakdown as in Venezuela (Source: Huffington Post). Incidentally, the Venezuelan poverty rate as of 2015, the most recent available year in the data, had risen to 33.1% (Source: World Bank).
And yet poverty was indeed reduced, significantly, in Venezuela under Chavez. His ever-expansionary flagship programme of social service provision through the state-backed ‘Bolivarian Missions’ (accounting for discounted food, housing subsidies, healthcare and adult-education drives) was surely crucial to this. The fundamental problem is that the programme was only possible within a model which would negate any short-term benefits it produced, as well as being wholly unsustainable, and an essential part of a more general project aimed at the conversion of certain sections of the populace – notably the inhabitants of the slums – into dependents of the state, thereby elevating what is effectively mass bribery (hand-outs for loyalty) into one the principles of national policy.
Let us be in no doubt: the Bolivarian Revolution was made, and sustained, by oil. Venezuela sits on the largest oil reserves in the world (greater even than those of Saudi Arabia), and, as if fortune had not been generous enough, Chavez presided over the country at the same time as oil prices sustained the greatest boom in the history of the trade – reaching a record peak of $157.73 per barrel in 2008, having begun, at the start of his incumbency, at $18 (Source: macrotrends.net). Accordingly, throughout his presidency, Venezuelan export revenues from oil saw an explosive increase of 600% between 1998 and 2013, with fuel accounting for 99% of all export revenue by 2012 (Source: World Bank). The rise in living standards attributable to the social programmes, as well as the fleetingly regionally superlative GDP per capita growth, were thus all anchored to the oil pump. When the price of oil began to fall from 2014 onwards – though in reality it would be more accurate to call it a return to a more ‘normal’ price – the marshy ground upon which the whole chavista edifice stood became plain to see.
For, and here we can agree with Mr. Corbyn and the QMMS. The Bolivarian revolution had been busy. Alongside the ‘Missions’ stood other major socialist reforms: nationalisation was pursued across many sectors – oil, agriculture, steel, gold, power and transport – to name but some of the more major areas, as well as with many private businesses and assets under foreign ownership; millions of acres of land were expropriated by the state; and Soviet-style price controls on the elementary goods were implemented. That even oil production actually declined – from 3,167 barrels per day n 1998 to 2,500 in 2013 – despite being the lifeblood of the revolution should serve as a damning indicator of the grave trouble in store for ‘21st Century Socialism’ as a result of these measures (Source: Index Mundi). In fact, it is characteristic of Chavez’s tenure that the problems which are now all but out of control actually emerged – and this cannot be stressed enough – during the years of the oil boom. In 2006 for instance, goods shortages were becoming more and more problematic. Price controls and collapsing profit margins were disrupting domestic production, and so began the major importing drive, heralded by Chavez in 2008, beginning Venezuela’s over-dependency on imports, which at the same time, thanks to the strict regime of currency controls, were made increasingly expensive, beginning to tail off after 2013, given the difficulty in obtaining dollars (Source: Index Mundi) (Source: CPS). The tanking of productivity in the nationalised steel and oil industries has already been noted above. It is the same story with sugar, 10 out of 16 refineries having been nationalised, which is presently producing one-third of what it was in 2006. (Source: CPS). Collapsing productivity may also be attributed to growing corruption and cronyism within industry as prompted by nationalisation. Almost 18,000 employees of the state-owned oil company, the PDVSA, were fired in 2002-3, and were replaced by 100,000 of Chavez’s supporters. Needless to say, what they lacked in skill, they made up for in loyalty. Finally, as Ricardo Hausmann of the Harvard Kennedy School memorably put it, despite the unprecedented global oil price, the Venezuelan government was spending the revenues ‘as if the price of oil was $200 a barrel’. The monumental budget deficit therefore accumulated, accounted for by the unsustainable programme of subsidies and social provisions, and rising near continuously under Chavez, reached 15.6 and 14.3% of GDP in the last two years of his rule (2012-13) (Source: IMF).
The legacy of socialism for Venezuela today is therefore plain to see for all but those blinded by ideological complicity: the furious printing of money, runaway inflation, ever more expensive imports, ever more goods shortages, ever deteriorating public services, an ever more tumultuous civil society, and a government which responds to a permanently disabling crisis of legitimacy with ever more coercion and centralisation. The National Electoral Council is now overtly fraudulent – inviting economic sanctions from the USA, Canada, and the EU – yet opposition parties are pressured to conform with an illegitimate electoral process, with municipal elections supposedly taking place this December. Furthermore, only this month (8th November), the superbly euphemistic ‘Constitutional Anti-Hate Law for Peaceful Coexistence and Tolerance’ was approved by the illegitimate National Constitutional Assembly, having been devised by Maduro et. al. in the wake of mass protests in April and July this year, following the dissolution of the then opposition-led Assembly by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. The law gives the STJ, effectively controlled by the President, even greater powers and constitutes another unsubtle attempt to criminalise and to censor free criticism of the regime – among private citizens, in the press and by political parties – with hundreds of prominent political opponents and activists (353 as of 6th November – Source: panampost.com) having already been put behind bars for exercising that apparently rare privilege. Now, for the QMMS of course, this is merely a hallmark of Maduro’s frankly flippant, nay laissez-faire approach to dictatorship: ‘only 353!’, they no doubt shriek, ‘he has betrayed the revolution to the saboteurs…he is allowing capitalism through the back door…capitulator! Compromiser!’. One can just imagine their consternation earlier this month at the release of two opposition leaders, Yon Goicochea and Delson Guarate; though their disappointment was likely tempered by news that, the same weekend, Vice President of the National Assembly Freddy Guevara’s parliamentary immunity was removed by Maduro’s Supreme Tribunal, presaging his flight to the residence of the Chilean Ambassador for fear of his personal safety, where, worse luck, he was granted asylum. Maduro, with the light touch of compromiser, boasted last July that there was a ‘cell with [Guevara’s] name on it’, claiming that Guevara had incited foreign intervention. Thankfully, in Venezuela at least, there are those who desire less dictatorship, not more. The opposition coalition affirms that these are fabrications, and protested that the double release earlier this month amounted to a ‘smoke screen’ behind which the Maduro regime could conceal wider human rights abuses, as manifest in the case of Guevara (Source: panampost.com).
The ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ has condemned what should, by accident of natural resources if nothing else, be one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, to increasing penury and authoritarianism. Those of its supporters in the West still brazen enough to defend it point to the early putative signs of improvement and ignore the ultimately impoverishing system, the architect of the country’s turmoil. This is the political equivalent of congratulating arsonists for handing out pails of water to the residents of a house which they are going to set on fire. In 2017, the hundred-years tradition continues.
*Like so much else surrounding this topic, and as with the mythic presentation of all major historical moments, the terms ‘Red October’, or simply, ‘The October Revolution’, belie hidden complexities. When Lenin made his move, the Julian (‘old style’) calendar was still used in Russia – meaning that the famous events actually took place in Russia in late October. Yet when the revolutionary government adopted the Western Gregorian (‘new style’) calendar in early 1918, time was shifted forwards by 13 days, meaning in retrospect that power was seized by the Bolsheviks, as it had been for the West, in early November.
Image – WikiMedia