Reply to John Riddell’s Review of My Book, Part Two, By Barry Sheppard

By Barry Sheppard

Part Two of Three.

John Riddell has clarified some points in his article on this blog, “Allende, Cuba, and World Socialism,” but he muddles other points and creates differences where there are none.

One of these concerns his allegation that the SWP position regarding the Allende government and the positions taken by Castro were sharply opposed. This is not true. Most of the quotes by Castro in John’s article are virtually identical to the positions taken at the time by the SWP, and I endorse them today.

John also says, “Sheppard’s chapter on Chile mentions the SWP’s 1982 collection of Castro speeches, but discounts their importance. He notes that [SWP leader] Stone’s introduction to the book did not claim that the SWP’s previous position had been wrong. This is correct; indeed, Stone reiterated the SWP’s longstanding assertion that the [Unidad Popular government] was a ‘poplar front.’ “

But I did not discount the importance of Castro’s speeches in this collection. How could I when, again, they were virtually identical to the positions of the SWP at the time? And, there was nothing in these speeches that contradicted Stone’s 1982 position that the UP was a popular front.

We did have a difference with Castro, and it is the only difference I have with John on the stance toward the UP government, and that is whether we should have given political support to the UP government as Castro did and John does.

The SWP never gave political support to popular front governments. Neither did Stone in 1982.

John’s other charge is that the SWP during the UP government did not wage a mass campaign in the U.S. against Washington’s role in the preparation of the coup.

John quotes a CIA instruction to its Chilean office in October 1970: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It would be much preferable to have this transpire prior to 24 October [when Allende was to be inaugurated] but efforts in this regard will continue vigorously beyond this date. We are to continue to generate maximum pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the [U.S Government] and the American hand be well hidden…”

In fact, this telegram and all the subsequent details of the direct U.S. hand in the coup were kept well hidden. If they had become known during the U.P. government, known to us and the broader movement in the U.S., there would have been mass protests. The October 1970 CIA instruction, and much more, only became known long after the actual coup in 1973.

This was the early 1970s, when the antiwar movement was still very much alive and there was deep mass distrust of Washington’s policies at home and abroad. But we and others had no information about the direct involvement of the U.S. in the run-up to the coup, and thus were restricted to warnings that past experience demonstrated that in all likelihood Washington was so acting behind the scenes.

That’s all that Castro did, also, because he too did not have the information that came out only years later. If he had such information, one can be sure he would have blasted it publicly, and that would have alerted the antiwar movement, including us, and there would have been mass protests in the U.S. – and in Chile, for sure.

Did we understand that socialists in the United States needed to actively oppose their own government’s involvement in the drive toward the coup? John asks. Of course we did.

It was not a U.S. invasion that overthrew Allende. That would have been met with mass protests in the context of the early 1970s. Allende was overthrown by the Chilean military, in collusion with Washington, but with its own forces with very few defections either in the officer caste or among the ranks. That’s what we tirelessly warned against, in opposition to Allende’s naïve trust in the armed forces. In this, we were in agreement with Castro, who did likewise, although diplomatically as John points out.

Frankly, to take us to task for not mobilizing against what was not yet known (and no other group in the U.S. so mobilized either, including those who politically supported the UP government) makes no sense.

So my continuing differences with John about what we should have said and done during the UP government are those two points.

That said, we are in agreement on the following points in addition to others that John lists:

1.We supported the UP government against the right wing mobilizations and attacks against it from its first days on up to the coup itself, and supported a united front effort along these lines.

2. We recognized the anti-imperialist aspect of the mass upsurge that was reflected in the election of the UP and measures the Allende government took against imperialism, and we wrote about our support to these measures in our press. (That John questions this is refuted by the record.)

John’s position of giving critical support to the UP government seems to imply that it was a workers government. As I explained in Part One of my reply to John, even if it was a workers government of basically the SP and CP, it would have been wrong to give it political support, however critical, because of its class collaborationist actions in favor of the bourgeoisie at every critical juncture, which disarmed it in face of the impending the Pinochet coup.

However, I do not think the UP government was a workers government. It was a popular-front type government. The small Radical Party (which was a bourgeois party not a petty bourgeois party as John asserts) was included in the UP for a reason, to make clear that from the beginning it would subordinate the interests of the working masses to those of the bourgeoisie.

The fact that Chile is an oppressed nation, not an imperialist one like France and Spain, where the Stalinist policy of the popular front led to disaster, doesn’t mean the concept of popular front doesn’t apply.

Specifically, Stalin did directly apply the popular front policy to oppressed nations where the democratic revolution against imperialist domination (and other democratic tasks such as land reform) is on the agenda. This is why CPs in Latin America, Asia and Africa were opposed to the working class in alliance with the peasantry taking power, carrying through the democratic revolution against the opposition of the national bourgeoisie, and opening the road to the socialist revolution in an uninterrupted (or permanent) manner.

Under the theory that the democratic revolution had to be led by the national bourgeoisie, the CP’s preached that the workers and peasants must not take power, but cede power to the bourgeoisie. In this the Stalinists adopted the same position as the Mensheviks did in relation to the Russian revolution. The Stalinists became the “second wave of Menshevism,” as Trotsky noted. The problem is that in the oppressed nations, the national bourgeoisie turned on its own revolution, and has proved incapable of carrying the democratic revolution through to the end, even in countries where formal independence was achieved, in every instance.

This raises a broader question, one that John is a foremost expert on, and that is revolutionists calling for a workers government or a workers and peasants government. This was raised in the course of the German revolution, 1917-1923, and was discussed in the German Communist Party at the time, as well as at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. John has translated and edited the proceedings of the Fourth Congress, and it is now available in English.

John is to be commended for his work on this and other volumes on the first four congresses of the CI. I am halfway through this latest volume, and urge all serious Marxists to study it.

The discussion on the question went beyond whether it was principled to call for a workers government that included reformist parties to address what attitude revolutionary socialists would take toward any such government that came into existence, and why.
It certainly isn’t true that calling on reformist parties to form a government in certain situations automatically implies politically supporting such a government, as John well knows.

An example was the SWP position in the Portuguese revolution of 1974-1975, a position John supported. During that upheaval, elections to a constituent assembly resulted in the combined vote of the SP and CP being a majority. Yet they both continued to support the domination of the capitalist armed forces in the government. In that situation, we called for the SP and CP to break with the capitalist Armed Forces Movement and establish their own government. At the same time, we made clear we did not politically support their class collaborationist programs.

The SP and CP had no such intention. But if they had, would we have supported such a workers government? That would have depended on what they did. If they broke with their reformist programs and moved toward socialist revolution (a very unlikely variant) then we might well have politically supported that government. But if they stuck to their reformist programs while in power, we certainly would not have, but would have demanded that they take the revolutionary road, proposing concrete steps in that direction.

One other example of the use of the workers government slogan has been revolutionary socialists, beginning with Lenin, calling for a vote for the Labour Party in Britain in the context of communists being a small minority. In certain situations over the decades revolutionary socialists joined the Labour Party, and worked for its candidates. But revolutionists never supported actual Labour Party governments when these were formed, as they were all not only capitalist governments but imperialist ones.

A famous use of the slogan, in the form of a workers and peasants government, was the Bolshevik’s calling for “all power to the soviets” of the workers, peasants and soldiers which formed in the February revolution. When this slogan was first raised, in April 1917, the soviets were dominated by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionists, reformist parties committed to capitalist rule. The Bolsheviks were a small minority. A soviet government at that time would have been a Menshevik-SR government.

This aspect of the demand for “all power to the soviets” is quite often ignored (although not by John – see his introduction in the volume on the Fourth Congress of the CI). Too often, the slogan is treated only as putting forward the form the dictatorship of the proletariat would take (which in fact it did in Russia’s case).

By raising the demand for the Mensheviks and SRs to break with the bourgeois Provisional Government these reformist parties had themselves set up, the real policies of those parties were exposed to the masses. The workers and peasants government slogan in this form was part of the Bolshevik offensive that over the next six months would lead to the Bolshevik’s winning a majority in the soviets to take power.

In other words, challenging the Mensheviks and SRs to take power exposed that they wouldn’t, preparing the way for those parties (the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs).that would do so to do so.

But suppose the Mensheviks and SRs had taken power under a soviet government. Would the minority Bolsheviks have politically supported such a hypothetical government? Lenin, in the course of the world war, modified his support for a future provisional revolutionary government, saying that only if such a government repudiated the war would it be deserving of support. Also, after the February 1917 revolution, the peasantry launched a great war in the countryside against the landlords. The Bolsheviks abandoned their previous agricultural program to give wholehearted support to this uprising of the peasantry as a whole. It is likely that this too would have been a precondition for Bolshevik support to a Menshevik-SR soviet government.

Of course, we know that these reformist parties were against the peasant war and for continuing Russia’s imperialist objectives in the world war. Those were two important reasons why they were against a soviet government that they would dominate, in favor of a bourgeois government.

So far I have been discussing the “workers government” or “workers and peasants” government as a transitional slogan. We found it also useful as an analytic tool. This is how it was used by the SWP in analyzing the Chinese, Cuban, Algerian, Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions.

In the case of the Chinese revolution, in 1949 the new Maoist government was committed to keeping the revolution within the bounds of capitalism, in accord with their Stalinist program. The new regime protected capitalist ownership for those “national capitalists” who broke from the Chiang Kai-shek government the revolution overthrew. They also halted the land reform for landlords who accepted the new regime. This lasted until the U.S. invasion of Korea threatened China itself, and the “national” bourgeoisie and landlords began to revolt in anticipation of a U.S. attack. The regime struck back, expropriating the bourgeoisie and landlords.

Our analysis was that a workers and peasants government had come to power in 1949, but one that still rested on capitalist property relations and there still existed a capitalist state. With the expropriation in 1953, a workers state had been formed, albeit born as a bureaucratically deformed one modeled on the Stalinized Soviet Union. We did not support this government for this reason.

[One possible source of confusion is that the new soviet power in Russia did not move to expropriate the capitalists immediately, but correctly saw this as a process that would begin with workers control in capitalist enterprises, and to “wrest by degrees” capitalist ownership of the means of production. In Russia this preferred course was cut short by bourgeois counter-revolution in the form of the civil war and imperialist invasion. The difference with China was that the course toward socialism was openly stated as the Bolshevik’s objective from the outset, so the 1917 revolution marked the establishment of a workers state before the wholesale expropriation of the capitalists. The Maoists came to power rejecting socialist revolution for almost four years.]

In the 1959 Cuban revolution, the revolutionary leadership was not Stalinist, and had bypassed the Cuban Stalinists from the left. The Castro team’s program was a revolutionary, national democratic one, not socialist. But they carried out this program, first of all land reform, consistently, which led them into conflict with the Cuban capitalists and the U.S. imperialists. As a result of class struggle inside Cuba and under U.S. imperialist attack, the new regime moved against capitalist interests, and formed a workers and peasants government in less than nine months with the appointment of Che Guevara as head of the economy ministry. In the course of the next year, the internal class struggle heated up as did the confrontation with imperialism, and there was a public struggle over the direction of the revolution, with spokesmen of the old Stalinist party, especially Blas Roca, arguing that the revolution should not go beyond capitalist bounds and that the “national bourgeoisie” should not be expropriated. The Castro team moved in the opposite direction, and smashed capitalism in October 1960, establishing a workers state.

In the case of Cuba, we supported the workers and farmers government before and after it established a workers state. It was not and is not Stalinist.

The revolution in Algeria against French rule was contemporaneous with the Cuban struggle. When it triumphed in 1960, a workers and peasants government was established under Ben Bella. The Ben Bella government formed close ties to revolutionary Cuba. The formal program of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) championed the democratic revolution and envisioned it becoming a socialist revolution in a democratic workers state. We supported this government. As I outline in the first volume of my book, in this case the process faltered, and the workers and peasants government was overthrown by a military coup from within.

The Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions set out on a similar path, with the benefit of the example of the previous Cuban revolution, forming workers and peasants governments from the beginning. We supported both governments. For reasons I discuss in my second volume, the process was cut off in both countries. In Nicaragua the workers and peasants government was worn down by the imperialist-backed contra war, and became a coalition government with capitalist agricultural forces, the dominant section of the bourgeoisie, by 1984. In Grenada, a Stalinist grouping within the government overthrew the workers and peasants government in a violent coup (whatever their subjective intentions were).

Today we are faced again with these sorts of questions in Latin America. New regimes have come into existence in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador which have challenged U.S. imperialism and have taken measures not to the liking of their “own” capitalist classes. This is occurring in the context of capitalist regimes in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and to a lesser extent elsewhere asserting greater independence from the colossus to the north. A new government has been elected in Nicaragua under the Sandinista imprint (although no longer the revolutionary Sandinista regime that came to power in 1979) which has also taken positions at variance with Washington.

In his article, John ends with: “Allende in the twenty-first century. Twenty-six years after the coup in Chile, the election of Hugo Chavez opened a period in which left or left-center governments have been elected in almost a dozen Latin American countries. Several have faced U.S.-inspired coup attempts, which succeeded in two countries (Honduras and Paraguay) and have failed in several others. Many of these governments have close relations with Cuba and also with mass movements of the type seen in Chile under Allende. The governments vary enormously in policies and character. The SWP’s dismissive analysis of the Allende government in 1970-73 would lead us astray if applied to those recent experiences.”

But the situation in Latin America today is quite different from Chile in 1970-73. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and the CPs no longer represent the type of counter-revolutionary danger the Chilean CP did. Also, Latin American has gone through a long experience of neoliberalism — one could say initiated by the many military dictatorships, including Pinochet’s, that blighted the continent. This experience, terrible for the masses, is deep in their consciousness. That’s new from 1970-73. It is a factor in the new awakening across Latin America.

As far as the capitalist governments in countries like Brazil, Argentina and Chile and others who have taken independent stances from Washington, the SWP’s stance of supporting every single anti-imperialist measure taken by the Allende government “if applied” to those countries would not lead us astray. But giving these governments political support would “lead us astray.”

As far as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are concerned, these governments today are not popular fronts of the SPs, CPs and bourgeois parties, like existed under Allende. Their dynamics are different, and the Allende experience offers little analogy other than that these governments were elected.

An important feature of this new stirring in Latin America has been the emergence of indigenous peoples as a political and social force in various degrees in the different countries, obvious in the countenances of Chavez and Morales.

For this discussion, the developments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are central, especially Venezuela, where the process has gone farthest.

Others know much more about Chavez and the movement he leads and personifies than I do. From what I have read (and John or others can correct me), I think the main turning points began with the mass uprising in Caracas in 1989 in response to neoliberal policies against the workers and plebian masses. This found an echo in a group of lower officers in the military around Chavez, who began to organize themselves. Chavez may have been in contact with a group that had split to the left from the Venezuelan Communist Party, called “Cause R”.

Some two or so years after the 1989 uprising, the group around Chavez attempted a military coup, in the name of the uprising and in the hope to rekindle the mass uprising, which failed. Chavez was not shot after the coup was defeated, but imprisoned, and then released as a result of his popularity among the masses. The two old capitalist parties were in disarray and becoming increasingly unpopular. Chavez defeated these decaying relics in the 1999 elections, promising a new democratic constitution and a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. A constituent assembly was elected that drafted a constitution based on some far-reaching democratic principles giving important rights to the popular masses. Measures were taken that bettered the situation of those masses, which engendered capitalist resistance and imperialist alarm. The result was a counter-revolutionary military coup in 2002, led by a section of the officer caste. The coup was hailed by Washington, but was rapidly smashed by a different section of the officers leading the rank and file in the armed forces in alliance with a huge mass mobilization that descended on the center of the plotters in the Presidential Palace.

There was another attempt to overthrow the Chavez regime soon after in a bosses’ strike centered in the nationalized petroleum industry. This too was smashed, with the oil workers leading the way by taking over the industry and restarting production.

After these events, Chavez proclaimed that the “third way” had failed, and that the revolution’s objective was now socialism, but a “socialism of the 21st century,” a rejection of Stalinism.

I’ll stop here, and not try to recount the steps forward, the failed projects, all the gives and takes in the class struggle, including at the electoral level in the years since.

It is clear that capitalist property relations are still strong if not dominate in the economy. The state apparatus contains strong pro-capitalist sectors. Venezuela remains a capitalist state. Chavez himself emphasizes this fact.

It is also clear that the government under Chavez took many steps and promoted policies in the interests of the working class broadly speaking, and seeks to promote a deepening of this process by mobilization against capitalist interests. These structural changes include universal health care and education, major achievements. Chavez’ many anti-imperialist international initiatives include providing cheap oil to countries in the region.

It is my opinion that the Venezuelan government is a workers and peasants government within the still existing capitalist state, and this government deserves our votes and critical political support. Such a situation is unstable and marked by sharp class struggle in the enterprises, within the state, within the PSUV (Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela), and in fact at all levels.

However, there are some caveats. Unlike the governments that emerged from the Chinese, Cuban, Algerian, Nicaraguan and Grenadan revolutions, the old armed forces were not smashed. It is true that after the failed military coup of 2002, the coup plotters in the officer caste were purged, and the rank and file soldiers came to the government’s defense. But the old officer caste was not completely dispersed. The main officer who came to Chavez’ defense in 2002 has since gone over to the opposition, explaining he did so because he is opposed to socialism, the stated goal of the government. It is likely that there are others in the officer caste who sympathize with him. We should note, and applaud, that this guy was arrested and is currently imprisoned.

Once when asked about Allende, Chavez quipped, “I am armed, he wasn’t.” (A paraphrase.)

In the other revolutions referred to above, there was also a greater cleansing of the old capitalist bureaucracies of Chaing Kai-shek, Batista, the French colonialist administration, Somoza and the British-appointed Gary regime than has been the case in Venezeula. Whole sections of the old state bureaucracy remain.

Chavez played an outsized role in defending the masses’ interests. He was able to act as a unifying force of the workers, peasants and the oppressed, almost substituting for a party. The party he built, the PSUV, is not a finished revolutionary party. It contains pro-capitalist elements together with pro-socialist ones. It tends to be an electoral vehicle and not a mobilizer of the masses. For these reasons Chavez’s death is a huge blow.

These present big obstacles to the Venezuelan workers and peasants government consolidating their revolution. These obstacles can be overcome in the course of the class struggle, and that will depend in part on the caliber of the leadership that is being formed in the course of the class struggle itself. (It is not my purpose here to discuss how well this is developing, and in any case, I do not feel competent to comment on this at this time.)

The situation in Bolivia is less clear to me. I’m not sure of the relation of the Morales government to the military. The Morales government came to power under the impetus of powerful mass struggles, and has taken important steps in the interests of the workers and peasants and the indigenous peoples, and against imperialism, and has successfully beaten back capitalist and U.S. attempts to overthrow the government. But I maintain a wait-and-see attitude toward the class nature of the government.

I am even less informed about Ecuador, and am similarly agnostic, waiting on developments.

The nature of the political situation where such workers and farmers governments that have emerged in revolutions and mass upheavals within still existing capitalist states, however weakened, demonstrates that it is a highly contradictory situation. Sharp class struggle, instability and turmoil are the order of the day. Imperialism intervenes in whatever way it can. In such situations, either the revolution will move forward to decisively defeat the class enemy or it will be overthrown.

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