Thursday, 14 June 2007

Bonapartism, basic concepts and Chavez

Jim Denham (of the Alliance for War and Liberalism) has been crticial of Hugo Chavez and his government, calling them ‘a bonapartist formation, with nothing to do with socialism (assuming that by "socialism" you mean the rule of the working class)’. When I posted a Gramsci quote which says that perhaps calling a formation ‘Bonapartist’ is not the be all and end all of the matter Jim responded with ‘[s]o much for basic Marxist concepts’.

I think that position Jim takes here is an interesting one, and worthy of further exploration, especially as it exposes a real weakness in the approach of the British left in general. The Gramsci quote I posted only suggested that establishing something is Bonapartist is not the end of the matter, as it does not stop the need for further enquiry. Denham seems to be insisting that ‘Bonapartist formations’ are a basic concept of Marxist thought, and they tell us that the regime can have ‘nothing to do with socialism’.

The first point to note is that I am not a Trotskyist and I don’t really know that much about the Trotskyist position. This made it hard for me to even think of Bonapartism as a ‘basic concept’ of Marxist thought (I know it gets mentioned in the 18th Brumaire but still). But even if it is a basic element in Marxist thought, calling it a concept really doesn’t seem to help anyone, in fact Jim seems to have become an ideologist, for whom:

[R]elations become concepts; since they do not go beyond these relations, the concepts of the relations also become fixed concepts in their mind.

So, against Jim I raise Lenin, who refuses to acknowledge that Marxism is about ‘basic concepts’ that allow us to pre-judge a given situation. Against such positions Lenin insisted that the ‘very gist, the living soul, of Marxism [is] a concrete analysis of a concrete situation’. So in this respect I think that Gramsci is right and Jim is wrong, just establishing that a given social formation is Bonapartist tells us nothing about its relation to socialism or the emancipation of the working class – instead we have to ask the Marxist question – who benefits?

The Old man himself

The thing is, it seems to me that Trotsky himself realised this when he did his work on Bonapartism. I just randomly skimmed Trotsky’s article The Workers State, Thermidor and Bonapartism and came up with the following extracts:

The overturn of the Ninth Thermidor did not liquidate the basic conquests of the bourgeois revolution, but it did transfer the power into the hands of the more moderate and conservative Jacobins, the better-to-do elements of bourgeois society.

In France, the prolonged stabilization of the Thermidorean-Bonapartist regime was made possible only thanks to the development of the productive forces that had been freed from the fetters of feudalism.

And perhaps the kicker is:

Without historical analogies we cannot learn from history. But the analogy must be concrete; behind the traits of resemblance, we must not overlook the traits of dissimilarity.

Essentially what these quotes tell us is that although Napoleon was not the most advanced representative of the bourgeois revolution, he nonetheless preserved and stabilised the growth of the bourgeois revolution in France. What isn’t written here, but perhaps is more to the point, is that Napoleon spread the bourgeois revolution (and you’d think the AWL would love that) to the rest of Europe, as is evidenced by the fact that the Civil Code dominates the continent.

So, even for the paradigm case of Bonapartism, Napoleon himself, it is possible to say that he served a progressive role, in consolidating the gains of the bourgeois revolution, spreading it, and generally not liking feudalism. Of course, Louis didn’t play such a role, but this shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it is entirely possible that Bonapartism can play a historically progressive role.

Cui Bono?

But of course this is all well and good when we’re talking about bourgeois revolutions (although I seem to remember hear some Trots talking about spreading the gains of October etc.) but the typical response to what I have said is – ‘the emancipation of the working must be the act of the working class itself’ or ‘socialism from below’(!!!). Now, although I think these slogans themselves have to properly put into context, I do agree that the proletarian revolution is always one that will be qualitatively different from every revolution that has preceded it.

So, agreeing with Jim here, I still don’t think it’s the end of the matter. At the very least we need to ask – has Chavez opened a space for the emancipation of the working class? So, rather than just shout ‘Bonapartist (!!!!)’ we need to ask ‘who benefits’ from the Bolivarian revolution, and we need to enquire if it has benefited the working class.

And surely on this level we can say (at the very least) ‘yes’. Chavez has firstly put socialism and the working class on the agenda in Venezuela and indeed the world stage. This must be a good thing for the perspective of the working class. I think the work of Mike Lebotwitz has been instructive here. Even if we disregard Chavez’ concrete policies relating to the economy it is pretty clear he has opened up a space for the working class in a way that has never happened in Venezuela.

He has opened up the political process to the working class, and indigenous people so that it does not lie solely with the oligarchs and its representatives. The ideas of co-management, no matter how limited their application, help smash the myth that the workers cannot do without he bourgeoisie. The barrio healthcare initiatives are helping the Venezuelan workers get back their confidence and dignity.

I think the confidence and dignity argument is and important one, which ought not to be overlooked. In Venezuela the workers may not rule, capitalism may still not be overthrown, the old state machine may not have been smashed, but the working class and its organisations have grown, they are taken seriously, they are confident and organised. Surely this sort of empowerment is the key to any successful self-emancipation.

It is Jim's prerogative to disagree with my characterisation of Chavez (which was obviously provisional and sketchy), but I hope I have at least shown how a Bonapartist regime might be characterised as 'progressive'. Hopefully this will at least stop the pointless screams of "Bonapartist!!!!!!!!!" at the mention of Chavez' name.

17 comments:

Renegade Eye said...

I think that the issue is bigger than Hugo Chavez. He has raised expectations in Latin America, created momentum larger than himself. See my post about Sanitarios Maracay.

Chavez faces an organized right wing, bent on his assasination and overthrow. Do liberals for war defend Venezuela against the oligarchy and its allies?

Charlie Marks said...

i await with interest jim's reply.

wonderfully, executed, my furry friend!

Mike said...

It is actually a sad sign of the left in the centres of Imperialism, that they would cry about another nation, seeking national control of their nation. For those who do not know or understand, it is such actions like Chavez (although, he has yet to show more radical action), that must occur in developing nations, before the Western working-class can reproletarianise.

Again, it is a sad sign of the left, that we need to use the same words of criticism against these nations who are actually trying to fight their national struggles, without external interferences. I guess this is what you resort to, when the people won't actually listen to you. However, You can argue forever that the workers are exploited in the centres of imperialism, but there will not be any revolutions, not until the national struggles for revolution in the colonies of imperialism occur, to reproletarianise the working class in the centres of imperialism.

I think, if anything, Jim needs to start worrying about his own national social issues, as opposed to cry about another nation, he knows nothing about, outside of the privately owned media networks, which have their own propaganda to explain the situation.

AN said...

Korakious, when you talk about Napoleon spreading the revolution, i had always considered that Marx's discussion of Bonapartism was more to do with Charles Louis Bonaparte (napolean III) - but that is really neither here not there.

What is interting about Denham's position is that he counterposes the idea that becasue Chavez is - in his terminology - a Bonapart, then Venezuela is not in a revolutionary situation.

But the classic description of a Bonapartist regime by Trotsky himself was Kerensky. There is a school of thought that Russia in 1917 was in fact a revolutionary situation, though perhaps Jim might disagree?

Korakious said...

Hey Andy

This is actually Rob's post. I do however agree that there is a lot of evidence pointing to the direction of Russian being in a revolutionary situation in 1917.

Rob said...

Although Marx's discussion is about Louis once you accept that Bonapartism can be classed as a 'concept' of Marxist thought (or even just as an important part of it) you can surely apply it to other situations. Also in the Trotsky piece he used the example of Napoleon.

But what I wanted to do was support the contention of Gramsci (and I think you) that characterising a regime as Bonapartist is not the be all and end all of the situation. I was deliberately conservative in my assessment of Chavez, just so it could be shown that a Bonapartist need not be r-r-revolutionary in order to be 'progressive'.

AN said...

yeah Rob, I wasn't criticising, just asking for a bit more clarification. You are right that napoleon Bonapate was a Bonapart in the Marxist sense :o)

Do you think Denham is going to pop over to defend hinslef?

Jim Denham said...

as you have done me the honour of replying to my commenmts at some length, I will do the same shortly: for now, i would simply note that a boanpartist regime (eg:that of Cardenas in Mexico, about which Trotsky wrote quite extensively), is quite capable of enacting progressive measures (for instance, the Cardenas government expropriated te oil industry), without us advocating that the working class give them any sort of support (even after those prgressive measures):
"The international proletariat has no reason to identify its programme with the programme of the Mexican government. Revolutionists have no need of changing color, adapting themselves, and rendering flattery in the manner of the GPU (Stalinist-JD) school of courtiers, who in a moment of danger will sell out and betray the weaker side".
This staement was made *in favour* of a general position of sympathy towards Cardenas.
That should be our postion towards Chavez. But I repeat, and insist: he is*not* a representative of the working class.

Charlie Marks said...

That's clear enough Jim. Good reply. I disagree, natch. True, he is not a typical representative of the working class, but he has not as yet held back the self-organisation of the working class. In fact, he has pushed for it. We'll see how the communal and workers councils go, but at the moment, it looks promising.

Jim Denham said...

Charlie: you can put your faith in this "prince": I 9and the AWL) choose not to do so. Already, one of the AWL's critics on this matter (andy newman, of the 'Socialist Unity' site) has been honest enough to admit that he doesn't agree with working class emancipation from below. it seems to me that most Chavez fans don't, either.
Finally: I've just noticed the jokey term "Alliance for War and Liberalism" used by the owners of this site. OK, you Reactionary Scum and Lovers of the taliban.

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