Saturday, July 22, 2017

My book review of the biographical study of a leading Argentine Communist intellectual

Los intelectuales del partido comunista: Itinerario de Héctor Agosti (1930-1963). By Laura Prado Acosta. Raleigh, NC: A Contracorriente, 2015. Photographs. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. 137 pp. Paper, $19.95.

Published in the Hispanic American Historical Review (August 2017)

Relations between Communist intellectuals and their respective parties have always been characterized by a degree of tension, especially in cases like the highly doctrinaire Communist Party of Argentina (PCA). In this meticulously researched account of lifelong PCA intellectual Héctor Agosti, Argentine historian Laura Prado traces these relations  throughout five stages in the party’s history: international communism’s “third period” of the early 1930s, when Communists stressed class warfare; the popular front years; the amplified popular front period that spanned World War II; the first Peronist government, which coincided with the outbreak of the Cold War; and the years immediately following the overthrow of Perón in 1955 that saw the rise of the Peronist-influenced New Left. In each of these periods, Agosti avoided the extremes of sectarianism, on the one hand, and assimilation into mainstream thinking, on the other, at the same time that he respected party discipline with regard to its official positions. Prado does an excellent job of documenting the interplay of Agosti’s intellectual output, longstanding issues of national debate such as nationalism and liberalism, and contextual factors including Soviet policy.  

Prado points out that the anti-fascist experience of the popular front and World War II years had a profound formative influence on young Communist intellectuals, as was the case with Agosti who “became interested in diverse traditions of thinking and entered into relations with figures representing different political formations” (p. 62). In contrast to the “third period” when intellectuals were disparaged as a “‘petty bourgeois’ social sector” (p. 44), the anti-fascist period was characterized by a party leadership that valued their role in helping build bridges with non-Marxist currents in favor of a common cause. Subsequently, some Communists in Argentina were reluctant to abandon the anti-fascist strategy as it had brought “good results” (p. 101) and indeed represented a golden era for the communist movement throughout the world. Others, however, criticized the deviations known as “Browderism” (after U.S. Communist chief Earl Browder), which in Argentina led to an alliance that involved U.S. diplomat Spruille Braden in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Perón in the presidential elections of February 1946. The electoral results, the outbreak of the Cold War, and Perón’s own nationalistic and progressive social policies set off a process of introspection and revision within the PCA.

Prado traces the changes in Agosti’s thinking on Argentina’s liberal tradition, as typified by the nineteenth-century literary figure Esteban Echeverría (whose contributions Agosti helped celebrate as did other members of the Comisión de Homenajes a Esteban Echeverría). During the anti-fascist years, in reaction to the discourse coming from the right combining “anti-communist conceptions with anti-liberal conceptions” (p. 55), Agosti joined intellectuals of diverse political tendencies in lauding Argentina’s nineteenth-century liberals and their twentieth-century heirs. Agosti’s efforts to define and identify with a “national history” served to counter “the accusation by nationalistic sectors that communists promote foreign ideology” (p. 75). Nevertheless, his interpretation of the nation’s mainstream history with its heavy component of liberalism and positivism was hardly uncritical. His critique became more pronounced after 1946, when the PCA revised its position on the anti-liberal Peronist movement, and after 1955, when Agosti moved even closer to Preronism.

Agosti’s reassessments presented him with ideological and personal challenges. One was the argument formulated during Perón’s rule that Argentine Communists had turned their backs on the pro-democratic principles of the popular front period. Agosti rejected the notion that those who championed democracy should submerge other goals in order to concentrate on resistance to Peronism, a plea which Agosti called “‘political blackmail’” (p. 107). In the early 1960s, Agosti’s party discipline was put to the test (as it had been in the past). A group of young Communists, including future scholar Juan Carlos Portantiero who Agosti considered his “disciple” (p. 117), defended heterodox ideas associated with Argentina’s nascent New Left. Agosti as in the past refrained from distancing himself from the PCA beyond a certain threshold of “tensions with the party leadership” (p. 11). According to Prado, 1963 marked the “closing of a stage” (p. 12) in Agosti’s thinking that was distinguished by a degree of originality and innovation. For this reason, she ends her “intellectual biography” (p. 9) in that year, as opposed to 1984 when Agosti passed away.  

Prado eschews stereotypes and preconceived notions regarding the communist movement at the same time that she presents an independent, critical and scholarly analysis. The book represents a contribution, not only for what it tells us about a leading Communist intellectual, but also the impact of international and national developments on intellectual thinking in Argentina over a period of three decades. In addition, the work will be of special interest to scholars of intellectual history for the light it sheds on the relationship between scholarly inquiry and political commitment.   

Steve Ellner

Universidad de Oriente -  Anzoátegui campus (Venezuela)


Time’s photojournalist Meridith Kohut reports excesses on the side of the protesters and the police in Venezuela. As an example of the former, she points to an incident in which the protesters supposedly accused a man of coming robbery and burnt him alive. Abundant evidence points to the fact that he was burnt alive because he was taken to be a Chavista supporter. Furthermore it is much more likely that such a drastic action would be taken by radicalized protesters against a Chavista than against a thief. In fact, many in the opposition agree that the man (Orlando Figuera) was burnt alive because he was an “infiltrado” (that is a Chavista infiltrator). Finally, Orlando Figuera’s mother has declared that her son was burnt alive because he was a Chavista. She told the press: “Eso de que estaba robando lo desmiento aqui y donde sea. Esto no puede quedar así. Así como fue mi hijo puede ser otra persona.”  

The least Kohut could have done was to present both sides of the story. Kohut writes: “When a man was accused of stealing during a protest, Resistencia members punched and stabbed him, doused him with gasoline and set him afire. The man, Orlando Figuera, died days later.” 

Not surprisingly, the article, which is on the opposition’s protests, doesn’t say one word about the government’s massive mobilization capacity, as has been put in evidence in these last several weeks. Nor is there one word of the possibility that the violent protesters may have the backing of important political actors. It is true, as the article states, that a large number of the young people who are protesting are anti-party, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that the resources and planning required to pull off these actions come from obscure sources tied to radical opposition groups.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


In recent weeks, a number of Venezuelan specialists on the left side of the political spectrum have published and posted pieces that place them in an anti- Chavista, “ni-ni” position that consists of “a plague on both your houses” with regard to Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition. Certainly, at this moment the Chavistas are playing hard ball; the options available to them are limited.

I consider myself a “critical Chavista.” It’s not an easy position to be in, particularly because the last thing I would want to do is to act in any way that would favor the right (that is the Venezuelan opposition and its allies abroad). On the other hand, I have always opposed (even in my writing) the position of some people on the left who feel that U.S. leftists should not publicly express criticisms of socialist governments. Criticism (including public criticism) is necessary as it is part of the process of assimilating lessons.

The recent articles that harshly attack the Maduro government have been published in Jacobin magazine by Gabriel Hetland and another by Mike Gonzalez as well as Hetland’s piece posted by NACLA: Report on the Americas  in which he uses the expression “que se vayan todos.” More recently NACLA posted an interview with Alejandro Velasco that was originally published in the magazine Nueva Sociedad.

I know a number of people in Venezuela and academia in the U.S. and elsewhere who I used to see eye to eye on with regard to Chavez and I now find them expressing total rejection of and even animosity toward the government. The only thing that binds us now is our common support for the need to defend Venezuelan sovereignty, and sometimes not even that.


1. CORRUPTION IS AN EXTREMELY SERIOUIS PROBLEM IN VENEZUELA, which the government has not done nearly enough to combat, though some timid measures have been taken (eg. over the last 6 months in the oil industry).
2. THE GOVERNMENT HAS VIOLATED CERTAIN DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLES – the decision to strip Henrique Capriles of the right to participate in elections on grounds of corruption; and the delay of the gubernatorial elections; but not the decision not to hold the recall in 2016 (since the opposition didn’t have their act together on that one).

3. THE NEGATIVE ROLE OF THE “STATE APPARATUS AND THE CHAVISTA ELITE” - Velasco begins his interview with these words. I agree that the state bureaucracy and Chavista elite have stifled internal Chavista democracy and in doing so have discouraged mobilization. Nevertheless, I also recognize that this bloc (the Chavista bureaucrats) buttresses the Chavista hold on power as it has a mobilization and organizational capacity that would be lost should Maduro unleash a “revolution within the revolution.” Hastily turning power over to the rank and file would have disastrous immediate consequences. Thus, for instance, Chavez’s decision to implement the Plan Guayana Socialista in which the workers chose the presidents (known as “worker presidents”) of state companies in the Guayana region was a failure because the labor movement in those firms, almost 100 percent Chavista, went at each other’s throats.
4. THE CHAVISTA MOVEMENT HAS LOST A LARGE NUMBER OF ITS ACTIVE SUPPORTERS. In addition to the factors named by the “ni-nis” (corruption, government bungling, etc.) there is the factor of “desgaste” (wearing down process over time) which is inevitable and doesn’t in itself reflect negatively on the Chavista leadership. Eighteen years is a long time.

1. THE MADURO GOVERNMENT IS AUTHORITARIAN OR HEADING IN AN AUTHORITARIAN DIRECTION, which at this point is my most important disagreement with the “ni-nis.” Those who make this statement never acknowledge the importance of context. They recognize, though in some cases they play down (not so in the case of Hetland’s Jacobin piece), the violent activity unleashed by the opposition, but don’t relate the state’s police actions to the challenges it is facing. Just to provide one example. A totally anti-government hostile communications media encourages the audacity and extremism of the opposition for two reasons. First the police and National Guard are held back from responding firmly and without hesitation and thus they lose their dissuasive capacity. And second, the protesters themselves feel empowered. Both factors play on each other. In the U.S. or any other country, the corporate media (and some of the alternative media) would be completely sympathetic to the actions of security forces, even their excesses, in a situation of urban paralysis and urban violence over such an extended period of time (it’s been three and a half months). Furthermore, to use the term “authoritarian” when the local media is so supportive of the opposition, is simply misleading. It is true that the national TV channels (specifically Televen, Venevision, and Globovsion) are less hostile to the government than in 2002-2003 but they (perhaps with the exception of Venevision) are still more pro than anti opposition. But almost all of the important written media both nationally and locally are vocally anti-government. And in the case of the international media, the bias has no limits.

Finally, there are valid criticisms of the Chavista-chosen methodology for the Constituent Assembly election to be held on July 30, but that doesn’t make Venezuela authoritarian. In 18 years of Chavista rule, there has never been plausible evidence of electoral fraud. Compare that with the dubious legitimacy of last month’s elections in the state of Mexico City, hardly unique for that nation.

The real elephant in the room is the gubernatorial election of December of this year, which the Maduro government is committed to holding. Those contests, to be held in just five months from now, will measure popular support. And they will put to the test the democratic commitment of both the government and the opposition. In my opinion the radical fringe of the opposition would prefer to reach power through force in order to crush the Chavista movement and impose neoliberal policies – “shock-treatment” style – rather than reach power through electoral means, in which case their options would be more limited.

2. THE GOVERNMENT IS NOT SINCERE ABOUT DIALGOUE, according to Velasco – there is no evidence one way of the other on this one.
3. THE CHAVISTA RANK AND FILE HAS LITTLE REASON TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT THE MADURO GOVERNMENT and for that reason two million of them abstained in December 2015. Although obviously disillusionment is widespread, there are many important reasons for progressives and popular sectors to support the Maduro government: nationalistic foreign policy, rejection of neoliberal type agreements with international financial institutions, social programs that involve community participation; zero-sum-game policies that favor the popular sectors (example: the Bus Rapid Transit – BRT – that in Barcelona-Puerto La Cruz reserves one of two lanes on the main drag connecting the two cities to accordion-type busses at the expense of automobile traffic); and finally Maduro (in spite of all of his shortcomings as an administrator and failure to take necessary bold decisions) has proven to be a fighter and to convince his base that he’s not going to go down without a struggle to the end. He has also attempted to mobilize his base; the failure to attempt to do so by Lula and Dilma Rousseff is a major reason why the impeachment against the latter went through.

4. VENEZUELA’S ECONOMIC DIFFICULTIES ARE NOT ABOUT LOW OIL PRICES BUT ABOUT GOVERNMENT INEPTNESS. In fact, there are three causes of the economic crisis and they all have approximately the same weight: low oil prices, the economic war (with Julio Borges’s public campaign against multinational investments in Venezuela, the existence of an economic war is clearer to see than in the past), and erroneous government policies. With regard to the latter (and here I probably diverge somewhat from Mark Weisbrot), I believe that decisions on economic policies were necessary and urgent, but that there were no easy and obvious choices and any one that was made would have come with a price, both politically and economically.
5. GOVERNMENT INTRANSIGENCE IS DUE TO THE FACT THAT THE CHAVISTA LEADERS DON’T WANT TO LOSE THEIR PRIVILEGES. This statement is misleading, even while there is undoubtedly an element of truth in it. But the statement assumes that Chavista leaders are all cynics and without any sense of idealism. Where is the scientific evidence to support this claim?

6. ATTORNEY GENERAL LUISA ORTEGA DIAZ REPRESENTS A NUETRAL POSITION WHICH THE MADURO GOVERNMENT IS UNWILLING TO TOLERATE. In fact, regardless of her motives, she has assumed an explicitly pro-opposition position. In such a critical situation in which the opposition openly proposes anarchy as a means to unseat Maduro, it makes sense that the Chavistas are attempting to remove her from office.
In short, I believe in the conclusive need to support the Venezuelan government in spite of the numerous criticisms that I have (some more profound than others). With that, I am not arguing for non-discussion of the errors. Everything to the contrary, the Venezuelan experience needs to be analyzed from a critical perspective, especially because of the plausibility of the criticisms formulated by critical progressives and the thorniness of many of the issues that have been raised. But there is a long tradition of purism on the left that runs counter to the position of “critical support” that I advocate.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Venezuelan Crisis Needs to be Contextualized

Venezuela can not be considered a dictatorship in spite of certain violations of democratic procedures. One has to be careful as to where you draw the line between democracy and dictatorship. If you’re not careful, the U.S. may be thrown in the latter category. After all, where in the world does the candidate who gets nearly 3 million less votes than his rival get to be elected president? The Chavista governments have committed their fair share of errors. I’m the first to recognize that. But those errors have to be placed in a context. Since 2001 the opposition has declared war on the government and has done everything possible to overthrow it. Few times in history has an elected government faced such aggression on so many fronts (church, foreign powers, the national and international media, the business sector and the entire political opposition) over such an extended period of time. War and democracy are not compatible. This is not to justify the government’s errors but to provide a context to understand why the errors were committed. For example, the Chavista slogan “Unity, Unity and more Unity” is a recipe for sectarianism and clientelism, but is the result of facing a ruthless enemy with enormous resources. CONCLUSION: both sides share a degree of responsibility for the mess. In order to avoid another Syria (which is a definite possibility) leaders on both sides have to have the maturity to sit down and talk (without pre-existing demands). And foreign actors, rather than exacerbate the polarization which is what the White House, Almagro, and so many others are doing should insist on negotiations.That’s the only solution.

This piece was posted on the page of Venezuela Dialogue: A Forum for Dialogue and Reflection:

Friday, July 7, 2017


DAVID LAIBMAN’S SYNTHESIS APPROACH TO LONG-STANDING ISSUES OF MARXIST DEBATE: Review essay of Passion and Patience: Society, History, and Revolutionary Vision*

by Steve Ellner

Published in Science and Society, vol. 81, no. 3, July 2017, pp. 397-402

One of the merits of Passion and Patience is the breadth of the theoretical issues that Laibman analyzes and the cohesiveness of the arguments he puts forward. In doing so, he demonstrates the vitality and applicability of Marxism on diverse fronts. Laibman argues for the open-ended nature of Marxism as well as recognition of the “major contributions to our overall project” (p. 4) of a wide range of Marxist and (though to a much lesser extent) non-Marxist currents, such as Keynesianism and postmodernism. He also attempts to achieve a synthesis of Marxist schools in a number of areas and in doing so distances himself from dogmatic and reductionist formulations.

The book is a collection of essays published mostly in Science & Society beginning in 1994. The articles are organized in eleven chapters corresponding to topics related to Marxism, including political economy, capitalism in crisis, revolutionary strategy, and two on historical materialism. In spite of the extensive period of time that has elapsed since the publication of most of the essays, Laibman observes in the Introduction that nearly all of them “stand up quite well” (p. 7) and represent his current thinking. An exception is his earlier view that associated “socialism with collectivism and cooperation” (p. 7), as opposed to his current vision (undoubtedly influenced by the increased importance of social movements and social issues) that combines or perhaps synthesizes collectivism and individuality.

Laibman suggests that Marxism may have a “unique capacity” to synthesize diverse breakthroughs in the social sciences and at the same time “address the novel aspects of present-day reality.” His syntheses include fundamental Marxist positions that have historically divided Marxists and, as he shows, have been misinterpreted by non-Marxists. The deterministic tendency of some Marxists, for instance, has been distorted by philosophers such as Karl Popper to demonstrate the inherently totalitarian nature of Marxism. In refuting the determinist accusation, Laibman states unequivocally “there is absolutely no sense in which historical materialist theory ‘predicts’ any human outcome” (p. 68), even while he recognizes “underlying determinacy and directionality” (p. 69).  Human survival, for instance, is anything but guaranteed and in the face of this reality historical materialism only “points to the door and urges us to find it, as soon as possible” (p. 13). In way of another example, Laibman points to the possibility that “those in control of production …block and prevent technical change” (p. 68) in which case the contradictions of the dominant system analyzed by Marx will fail to deepen. Laibman’s observation, in effect, refutes the claim that Marx championed technological determinism.

Far from recognizing the validity of the anti-Marxist argument regarding Marxism’s rigidity, Laibman claims that non-Marxist social scientists are guilty of determinism in that they separate “objective and subjective dimensions, rather than “grasping their intense interaction” (p. 59). At the same time they idly wish that human agency could enter into the picture. In contrast, historical materialism enhances “revolutionary prospects… by joining appeals to subjective possibilities with study of objective conditions: what can be done in any given set of circumstance” (p. 59). 

Along similar lines, Laibman recognizes the merits of two basic and often conflicting visions that have been the subject of considerable debate among Marxists, one based on the dialectic and the other structuralism. The latter includes structural Marxism, which forcefully questions Marxism’s Hegelian input. Laibman avoids reference to structural Marxism and its main theoretician Louis Althusser and instead contrasts the dialectic with what he calls “methodological equilibrium,” in which the pure qualities of capitalism are accepted as valid for analytical purposes. In several essays, Laibman defends the usefulness of analyzing systems such as capitalism in their pure form or “inner core” (p. 119) or as an “abstraction” (in accordance with the structuralist approach) on grounds that they have “regular properties” and “benchmark values” (p. 120), even while recognizing that at any given historical moment they have almost invariably been of a hybrid nature and in a state of flux. In support of the structural approach toward the analysis of capitalism, Laibman points out “if you want to overthrow and replace it, you had better first… figure out how it works” (p. 119-120). As a way to overcome the difference between Marxism’s dialectical-based and structural-based variants at the metaphysical level, Laibman points to the relevance of the aphorism “motion and structure are the twin modes of existence of matter” (p. 117). In his support for a synthesis, Laibman argues that “structure and transformation, stasis and crisis, are intertwined aspects of capitalist reality” and that an appreciation of this duality is the only way to grasp the “complex reality” of capitalism (p. 120).

Another example of a synthesis embodied in Laibman’s analysis is his discussion of the current crisis of capitalist that began to manifest itself in the 1970s. Some Marxists have attributed the phenomenon to “under-consumption” while others to the falling rate of profit due to technological advances and/or working class gains. Rejecting all-encompassing explanations, Laibman reaches the following conclusion: “We should avoid… setting competition against technical change against market limitation against class struggle as explanatory vehicles. Understanding capitalist crisis clearly involves all of these, and more. The task… is to figure out exactly how they fit together” (p. 138).  

The Marxist debate over crisis also reflects the structuralism-dialectic polemic and here again Laibman calls for a synthesis approach. On the one hand, he defends the Marxist concept of the law of value (and the use of the term “labor theory of value”) as a valid instrument to analyze capitalism in the abstract and in “normal” situations, as opposed to moments of crisis. While certainly not endorsing the position that writes off economic crisis as external to the capitalist system, Laibman recognizes that capitalism “is not absolutely unstable” (p. 119), thus the feasibility of the structuralism approach. On the other hand, he quotes Greek economist and former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis as saying that capitalism in reality fails to “fit into well-behaved models” (p. 119).

Laibman raises the possibility of syntheses in his discussion of other topics. In the chapter “Labor, Symbols, Nature, Human Nature” for example, Laibman rejects two extremes: the cultural relativism of the postmodernists and absolute behaviorism that deny inherent features of human behavior, on the one hand, and the “human nature” argument that posits unalterable behavior patterns, on the other. Laibman argues that the former line of thinking leads to “total nihilism” (p. 76) and adds that even Marx recognized certain basic human qualities and needs unmet by capitalism.

Similarly, in his discussion of the role of markets, Laibman stakes out a middle ground. On the one hand, he rejects the position of those Marxists who view markets as antithetical to the socialist system. Markets under socialism are destined to play a positive role and only under communism will they wither away. On the other hand, Laibman questions the notion of market socialism that “markets are an inherent feature of human life and socialism should be based on them” (p. 169; Laibman, 86, 2002).

Laibman’s synthesis approach is manifested in the book’s title “Passion and Patience,” a quote that is attributed to long-time U.S. Communist leader William Z. Foster. Referring to the title, Laibman writes in the Introduction that the “right combination” of the two “is the way to go” but “finding” it is no easy matter (p. 1). Undoubtedly, for Laibman, “passion” is an indispensable component of any progressive movement for authentic change. Passion is fed by the conviction that capitalism is the root cause of the multiple ills and injustices confronting the world today and that socialism is the only viable humanitarian alternative.  Left to itself, there is little room for compromise or nuanced positions.

In contrast, the word “patience” sheds light on the complexity of history, the multi-dimensional aspects of systemic transformation and the protracted duration of the process of meaningful change. Laibman uses the term “deep history” to refer to the larger timescale and social and cultural evolution that points in predetermined directions. Laibman conditions the directionality of his version of historical materialism by recognizing the “centrality of agency” (p. 72) and the multiplicity of “concrete social formations” (p. 69) making anything possible, at least in the short run. In addition, he eludes mechanical Marxism by pointing to the interplay within nations of modalities of distinct systems corresponding to distinct periods of history. Given the complexity stemming from this configuration of contrasting, if not incompatible, components, no one can say with assurance that the time has come for a systemic change, or that one is around the corner. Elsewhere Laibman wrote: “For ‘official’ reasons in the East and ‘utopian’ ones in the West, Marxists have repeatedly compressed the time line for social change” (Laibman, 2005, 287).  

In defining his concept of deep history, Laibman opts for an in-between position that avoids the extremes of what some call the “hard” (perhaps a euphemism for dogmatic) Marxist approach and the “soft” approach, or, as he writes elsewhere, “developing a theory that is simultaneously ‘hard’ and ‘soft’” (Laibman, 2007, 4). The former is characterized by determinism and belief in the commonality of fundamental factors and linear succession. The “soft” category may include the theory of overdetermination in which numerous factors at the level of structure and superstructure enter into play, thus making predictions of any sort problematic. An extreme expression of the “soft” approach would be postmodernism, which recognizes an infinite number of variables and highlights contingency.

Laibman’s rejection of the so-called “hard” position in its pure form, which simplifies the process of transformation, and the “soft” position, which denies or underestimates directionality, has far-reaching political implications. Directionality and the unsynchronized, multidimensional process of change – considered by Laibman to be fundamental components of historical materialism – lend themselves to a nuanced evaluation of socialist governments in spite of shortcomings, erroneous policies and structural deficiencies. Key aspects of these experiences such as state planning and, in the case of Venezuela, popular participation in decision making, are essential elements of socialist transformation that leftists needs to appreciate and highlight, even while pointing to and analyzing errors committed. Directionality is thus a corrective to purism and reductionism that pass over the positive aspects of existing socialism, which is faulted for falling short of what is alleged to be the system’s fundamental definition.

In his chapter on Soviet socialism, Laibman departs from the tendency to incorporate diverse factors and explanations into his analysis. While presenting cogent arguments to demonstrate the socialist character of the Soviet Union, Laibman attributes the shortcomings of state planning and the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union to “the authoritarian habits and culture inherited from past decades (and, indeed, centuries)” (p. 240). He concludes that in the area of political economy “the Soviet Union had it right!” (p. 171) and that “the Soviet demise was due to the culture, not to the economy” (p. 172). Such all-encompassing statements ignore the obvious tie-in between widespread institutionalized corruption (which at first glance could be characterized as “cultural”) and the chronic shortages and unwieldy distribution system that lent themselves to unethical conduct. Shortages, which were the result of structural deficiencies and/or errors in economic policy, led to corruption, not vice versa. Contrary to what Laibman explicitly alleges, economics trumped cultural factors.

In short, Laibman’s outstanding contribution is his overall vision based on the formulation of syntheses as a means to resolve long-standing polemical issues from a Marxist perspective. Over a century and a half of political struggle since 1848 has not provided Marxists with definitive or nearly definitive answers to many basic questions that have historically divided the left, suggesting the need to go beyond a singular set of explanations. Nevertheless, the answers certainly do not consist of a tick in the box of the all-of-the-above option in a multiple choice-type list of factors. Laibman argues for a veritable synthesis of different Marxist positions and implies that the real challenge for theoreticians and strategists on the left is to demonstrate how aspects of apparently conflictive and mutually exclusive explanations fit together. Laibman’s attempt to meet this challenge goes hand in hand with his advocacy of a non-dogmatic brand of Marxism, one that combines an appreciation of the structural whole with an appreciation of the relentlessly changing features of the system.

* I would like to thank Barbary Foley for her critical comments on an earlier draft.


Laibman, David. 2002. “Comment.” Science and Society, 66:1 (Spring), 86-87.

_______. 2005. “Theory and Necessity: The Stadial Foundations of the Present.” Science and Society, 69:3 (July), 285-315.

______. 2007. Deep History: A Study in Social Evolution and Human Potential. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Monday, June 26, 2017



From Venezuela Dialogue: A Forum for Dialogue and Reflection

by Steve Ellner

Any viable solution to the current crisis in Venezuela cannot pass over the origins of the political violence that has intensified over the recent past and now overshadows other national issues such as economic problems and delinquency. The opposition and much of the media in Venezuela and nearly all of the international media hold the government exclusively responsible for the nearly one hundred resultant deaths. According to this narrative the sequence that results in violence is unmistakable: first peaceful marches followed by brutal government repression and then the reactive excesses by a few belligerent break-away demonstrators. Those civilians who engage in violent actions are sometimes labeled Chavistas or infiltrados, whose function is to discredit the protests. Opposition political leaders, according to this version, often attempt to reason with the few belligerent protestors to convince them to desist from engaging in violence.

Ample evidence places in doubt the veracity of this interpretation of what is happening on the ground. The facts point in a different direction, namely that there is an articulation of various types of protest:

1. The lines between the peaceful legal protests, the peaceful illegal protests (such as the blocking of traffic) and the violent protests are not clearly drawn. Actually, few of the protests are legal since most involve blocking traffic sometimes by means of fires that extend from one end of the street to the other. At what point does one type of protest end and the other begin? At what point on the continuum can the protesters be considered infiltrados?

2. Some opposition strategists talk of the “Ukrainian manual” in which the combination of various types of protests succeeded in toppling a government.

3. Most of the protests take place in municipalities governed by the opposition; the municipal police force does nothing to impede or attempt to control them.

4. The opposition repeatedly calls “peaceful” marches that are bound to lead to violent confrontation. On numerous occasions they call marches to reach downtown Caracas, knowing full well that they will be forcefully blocked by the government out of fear of a repetition of April 11, 2002, when such a protest erupted in violence leading to the overthrow of Chávez. In recent days they have called for demonstrations in front of Caracas’ Carlota air force base, even though it has been the target of numerous attacks by hooded protesters, resulting in a number of casualties. The predictability of violence in these cases would appear to shed light on the opposition’s dubious intentions.

5. Some members of the opposition have manifested a degree of intolerance and fanaticism that equals that of fringe groups on the right in the United States and Europe. Their behavior and expressions of hatred for the Chavistas can be gleaned from countless social media posts as well as everyday conversations. Their attitudes lend credibility to the claim that those protesters who engage in violence belong to the opposition.

7. Another indication that violence is perpetrated by members of the opposition and is not of an isolated nature is that it dates back to the early years of Chávez’s rule and has been repeatedly employed. Incidents of this nature occurred prior to the April 2002 coup, following the failed general strike of 2002-2003 (including bomb explosions at the Colombian and Spanish embassies in Caracas), an abortive paramilitary incursion in Caracas in May 2005, following the announcement of the non-renewal of the television concession for Radio Caracas in 2007, immediately following Maduro’s election in 2013, and during the four months of “guarimba” in 2014. The notion that the violence carried out by demonstrators is a spontaneous response to repression overlooks the historical context.

By presenting the narrative that the opposition-perpetrated violence is a spontaneous response to repression, the media (as well as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church) is doing a disservice to the cause of national reconciliation and stability while encouraging the radical currents of the opposition.

For their part, President Maduro and other top Chavista leaders have failed to persuasively clarify the relationship between these different types of protest and instead they focus on the violence perpetrated by the opposition. Little is said of the illegal nature of non-violent protests that involve the blocking of traffic. Nor do Maduro and other Chavista leaders emphatically explain why the marches are not allowed to reach downtown Caracas. These shortcomings give credibility to the opposition’s narrative, specifically its claim that a small fringe (possible consisting of infiltrados) is alone responsible for the street violence. 

National reconciliation requires concessions on both sides. Anti-government leaders, for their part, need to explicitly repudiate the violence by recognizing the culpability of protesters who are acting on behalf of the opposition. For this reason, they need to modify their slogan of “liberation of political prisoners” to make clear that they are not defending those who engage in violence. In addition, the opposition needs to cease calling street protests that are conducive to confrontations, disruptions and violence. Finally, the municipal governments controlled by the opposition need to promote the coordination of efforts that include the local police, the National Bolivarian Police and the National Guard not only to counter violent protests, but peaceful illegal ones as well.

Venezuela Dialogue: A Forum for Dialogue and Reflection:

Steve Ellner

Latin American Perspectives

Sunday, June 25, 2017

My review of "Extractive Imperialism in the Americas: Capitalism’s New Frontier," edited by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer

"Extractive Imperialism in the Americas: Capitalism’s New Frontier," edited by James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014.

April 2017 issue of Science & Society

The Latin American bourgeoisie has put up varying degrees of resistance to the leftist and center-leftist governments that have come to power in the continent in recent years. From a Marxist perspective, the incongruity between political power held by leftists and the capitalist economic structure, which is as firmly entrenched as ever, cannot continue for long. Analysts on the left differ over the degree to which leftists in power have reacted to this contradiction by making concessions and watering down their original goals in order to accommodate economic elites.

In this volume, editors James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer explore and analyze how the contradictions play out in the area of foreign investments in mining and other primary commodities that have over the recent past become the dominant sector of Latin American economies. The heightened dependence on, and state support for, production of primary products for export, a model known as “extractivism,” contrasts with the “import substitution” stage in which governments promoted the manufacture of consumer items for the domestic market. The editors note that the policy of progressive regimes in Latin America toward foreign investment in mineral wealth and their acquiescence to extractivism have “generated deep paradoxes” (p. 119). Petras and Veltmeyer recognize certain positive features of the “more radical form of progressive extractivism” (p. 26) represented by Venezuela and, to a lesser extent, Bolivia and Ecuador as well as (but to an even lesser extent) the center-left governments of Argentina and Brazil. Specifically, leftist and center-leftist governments have maximized income by driving a hard bargain for the exploitation of their natural resources and have channeled the revenue into social programs. In contrast, the centrist governments of Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto and Ollanta Humala in Peru have granted foreign capital much more lenient terms including low taxes on mineral exploitation, and as a result have had much poorer records on poverty reduction.

Nevertheless, Petras and Veltmeyer and the volume’s other authors unequivocally deny extractivism’s potential to promote transformation and sever relations of dependency. They conclude that under the extractivist model the “agency” for real change “is unlikely to be the state” (p. 32). Indeed, the import substitution stage, with all its limitations and disadvantages, produced greater advances than extractivism, with all its revenue derived from high international commodity prices. Not surprisingly, Petras and Veltmeyer title their chapter on Brazil “Extractive Capitalism and Brazil’s Great Leap Backward.”

The inherent flaws of extractivism discussed by the editors sound like a textbook description of enclave economies of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the first place, they argue that “without industrialization there can be no development,” which would be better served by the harnessing of “unlimited supplies of labour” as opposed to “a high organic composition of capital” (p. 28). At the same time, they attempt to debunk “the idea of extractivism as a transitional phase in a modernization process” enabling the country eventually to “add value to…natural resources before exporting them” (pp. 35-36). In the second place, extractivism implies dependence on foreign investment and an international market that has always been characterized by sharp fluctuations and usually translates into “a deterioration in the terms of trade for commodity exporting countries” (p. 29). Finally, the authors point to the ecological devastation produced by the extractivist model. In a chapter on oil pipeline construction in northern British Columbia, Veltmeyer and Paul Bowles conclude that “extractive capitalism in its contemporary form is a blight on humanity, a predatory and relatively backward economic and social system based on…the unsustainable development of non-renewable and commodified natural resources” (p. 253). 

The authors take issue with the “world system” approach and other paradigmatic formulations that “lump [s] together disparate political, social and economic internal configurations, opposing strategies and responses to imperialism” (p. 274). In their closing chapters “Dynamics of 21st Century Imperialism” and “Reflections on U.S. Imperialism at Home and Abroad,” Petras and Veltmeyer argue that, contrary to globalization thinking, the U.S. maintains its domination largely through military might and that “U.S. financial and military elites, not industrial-manufacturers, now dictate policy” (p. 277). Even though “Washington lost a strategic economic level – market power” (p. 257), “the thesis of the decline of the U.S. empire… [is] overstated… and lacking in specificity” (p. 295).

Petras and Veltmeyer also question the applicability of orthodox Marxist formulations on the primacy of the workplace and the proletariat in the struggle for change in twenty-first century Latin America. The epicenter of struggle has moved to the streets, mining sites and communities. The central issues have also shifted from wages, working conditions and land reform to the defense of “land, water and natural resources” (p. 100). Nevertheless, they point to mine workers as playing a critical role in the resistance to extractive capitalism, an observation also made by Dennis Canterbury in his chapter “Extractive Capitalism and the Resistance in Guyana.”

The volume deals not only with the socio-economic structure of the new extractivism phenomenon in the Americas, but also organized opposition to the system. The book is divided into two parts of equal length, titled “Imperialism and Class Struggle Dynamics” and “Extractive Capitalism and Popular Resistance.” Of the book’s twelve chapters, eight are authored by Petras and Veltmeyer.

The authors have presented a wealth of empirical information to substantiate their thesis regarding the strengthening of dependency in the age of “new extractivism,” even in its progressive form. Nevertheless, they leave out of their analysis certain features of leftist and center-leftist governments that point in the opposite direction and cannot be dismissed as superficial.

Thus, for instance, Washington’s support for intransigent oppositions that have attempted to unseat progressive Latin American governments would indicate that the policies they are following, and not just their rhetoric, undermine established interests tied to global capitalism. In addition, the authors recognize the importance of social programs financed by mineral-derived revenue, but fail to point out that these undertakings do not consist merely of handouts or stop-gap measures. Many of them promote popular participation in decision making and a sense of empowerment among the poor. When the editors argue that the “gains” of progressive governments in reducing levels of poverty “cannot be sustained” (p. 31), they fail to recognize that social transformation may at the outset be as strategically important as economic development. In this sense, the editors’ position coincides with the claims of anti-left scholars that the social programs of the “populist” left, unlike those of non-leftists, are inherently unsustainable, without recognizing their transformational nature. Finally, individual policies need to be contextualized and progressive governments given credit for their implementation. State takeover of basic industries, for instance, was carried out by reformist and conservative governments alike in the post-World War II period, but in the age of globalization they acquired more far-reaching implications. Other examples of policies that represent advances in the context of globalization are the legislation eliminating outsourcing enacted under Chávez and the nationalistic foreign policy of both leftist and center-leftist governments. In short, the editors and the other authors of the book have put forward cogent arguments, though at time overstated, that demonstrate the weak, vulnerable and disadvantaged positions of progressive Latin American governments within the framework of twenty-first century global capitalism.

Steve Ellner