WE CREATED CHAVÉZ: A Peoples’ History of the Venezuelan Revolution.
By George
Ciccariello-Maher. (Duke U.P., 2013) 

What will become of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution without its great helmsman Hugo Chávez? A comparison: in special presidential elections held six weeks after Chávez’s death on March 5, 2013, his appointed successor, former vice president Nicolas Maduro, defeated Democratic Unity opposition candidate and Miranda state governor Enrique Capriles by less than 2% of the vote. Only six months earlier Chávez had crushed the neoliberal Capriles by 11 points. Was Maduro’s narrow victory the first sign—as mainstream pundits saw it—that Chávismo without Chávez was in retreat? Before concluding too hastily, consult George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chavez: A Peoples’ History of the Venezuelan Revolution. The subject of his “history from below” is the popular base upon which Chávez’s regime rested: the armed left-wing parties and autonomous collectives forming the very core of the country’s revolutionary tradition. Blending ethnography with political history and theory, the vignettes of We Created Chávez trace the stages and shapes of popular struggle that punctuated Venezuelan politics, from the establishment of electoral democracy in 1963 to the explosion of the masses onto the political terrain at the end of the century.

For Ciccariello-Maher, two events were decisive in generating the popular revolutionary consciousness that crystallized at the end of this historical arc, making possible Chávez’s rise to power. The Caracazo (February 27, 1989) was an explosive nation-wide insurrection sparked by President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s ultimately successful efforts to impose neoliberal economic policies. Ciccariello-Maher considers this event, which predated the Zapatistas and the Seattle anti-WTO protests, to have inaugurated the era of protest against neoliberalism. Brutally put down by Pérez’s troops, the up- rising nonetheless proved a peripatetic turning point, generating the “historical agency” capable of establishing the regime to come. The mettle of this political subjectivity would be tested more than a decade later in the days following the coup d’état of April 11, 2002. In response to news that Chávez had been deposed, rebels poured into the streets in the millions, demanding Chávez’s return while fighting back counter-revolutionary forces. Two days later, Chávez was back in power, a clear demonstration, Ciccariello-Maher argues, of “where the true power in Venezuelan society, and the Bolivarian Revolution, lay.”

The forcefulness of this much-reiterated argument in We Created Chavez stems from Ciccariello-Maher's fervent dedication to telling the stories of the many lesser-known revolutionaries he interviewed while writing the book. But in his rightful insistence that we recognize the degree to which Chávez and Chávismo ultimately depended on the support of the people, he obscures the role that the Venezuelan state and military have played both in securing the gains made by the revolution and holding the country’s and hemisphere’s powerful counter-revolutionary forces at bay. This is surprising, for as Ciccariello-Maher himself often points out, in the context of radical political change, the relationship between the people and the state, or between “constituent power” and “constituted power,” is a dialectical one, meaning that the two opposed “moments” are also inextricably inter-linked, both conceptually and in practice. Venezuela’s armed forces, for instance, have historically had a strikingly popular character to them, distinct from other militaries in the region, as Ciccariello-Maher himself points out. In revolutionary Venezuela, such institutions of “the state” cannot be abstractly hived off from the sphere of “the people”; instead there is an intersection of “constituent” and “constituted” power in these state apparatuses, instances of a partial people’s-state. Indeed, as a work of political theory, We Created Chávez is deeply indebted to Lenin, and so more dedication to these intersections of constituent and constituted power would have been welcome. 

However, while Ciccariello-Maher’s relatively light treatment of the role of the state in preserving the gains of the Venezuelan revolution might be chalked up to a matter of emphasis, there is a dimension to his Leninist interpretation of Chávismo that points to an actual blind spot in his account. Glossing State and Revolution, he writes: “Lenin saw himself as fighting a war on two fronts against those ‘opportunists’ who sought to simply take control of the state and the ‘anarchists’ who sought to avoid it at all costs, and his response to each was clear: against the former he insisted that the ‘ready-made state machinery’ must be ‘smashed’ and replaced, and against the latter he added the proviso that the old state will be replaced for a time by a proletarian ‘semi- state’ that must then ‘wither away’.... In today’s Venezuela, the opponents are largely the same....” To what extent is this true? Ciccariello-Maher depicts the Venezuelan state as being somewhere in the stage of being “smashed” and replaced. Like Lenin’s state, its opponents are the “opportunists” who would have it preserved for their own corrupt ends, and the “anarchists” who would attempt to “smash” it before establishing the real conditions for it to “wither away.” Framed in this way, the reader of We Created Chávez comes away with little sense that the Venezuelan Revolution is threatened by more exogenous foes.

The flip-side of Ciccariello-Maher’s brimming confidence in the power of autonomous collectives and their political agency is a real lack of attention to the strength of counter- revolutionary forces arrayed against Chávismo, domestically and geopolitically. While he uses Lenin’s concept of “dual power” to describe the relationship between Venezuela’s people and their representatives in the revolutionary state, he neglects to emphasize the applicability of the other dimension of the concept to the situation in Venezuela today; “dual power” also describes the relationship between the revolutionary state and the remnants of the counter- revolutionary bourgeois state. These remnants remain formidable, even if they lack the upper hand. Observers on the left must hope that Ciccariello-Maher’s thesis will be vindicated in the post-Chávez period; in recent history, unfortunately, there is no shortage of instances of far more entrenched revolutionary projects being rapidly thrown into reverse. 
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