Beware Venezuela’s false ‘anarchists’: unmasking El Libertario
From Roar Magazine - by George Ciccariello-Maher
Not everyone who calls themselves anarchists are worthy of the name. Before expressing our solidarity, we should be clear who it is we are supporting.
When it comes to the Venezuelan protests of recent weeks and months, misinformation reigns supreme. Just as liberals and progressives have been misled by desperate hashtags like #SOSVenezuela and simplistic comparisons to Occupy, so too has the radical left been tempted by the some self-described Venezuelan anarchists, and El Libertario in particular.
In a recent piece published in English both by Libcom.org and style="color: #0000ff;"> href="http://roarmag.org/2014/02/anarchist-perspective-protests-venezuela/" >ROAR Magazine, El Libertario figurehead Rafael Uzcátegui (not to be confused with the former guerrilla of the same name), put forth a highly misleading but also revealing account of the recent protests to provide an “anarchist perspective” for the “poorly informed.” Unfortunately, the piece leaves us even more poorly informed than before, and lacks any anarchist perspective whatsoever. (While this is not the time to fully dissect Uzcátegui’s book, translated into English as Venezuela: Revolution as Spectacle, let’s just say that—as the title suggests—it’s more Debord than Magón or Bakunin.)
He invokes a common refrain that there is no press freedom in Venezuela while noting that it was the most important Venezuelan newspaper, Últimas Noticias (which is sympathetic to the government) that released a style="color: #0000ff;">crucial video investigation showing the actions of security officials on February 12th. He critiques president Nicolás Maduro’s suggestion that a coup plot similar to the one that briefly overthrew Hugo Chávez in 2002 might be in the works, but leaves out El Libertario’s own ambivalence toward that coup when it happened (see below).
What is revealing, however, is the fact that Uzcátegui positions El Libertario as “simple spectators” and condescendingly blames “low levels of political culture” for the absence of a truly independent left. For anyone who has spent even a week in Venezuela, and especially for those of us from the US who have lived there extensively, this last statement is utterly incomprehensible, since the political culture of Venezuela, the constant flurry of vibrant critical revolutionary activity, is at times overwhelming. But this, alongside Uzcátegui’s demonization of popular revolutionary organizations (colectivos) as “militia groups” speaks volumes about El Libertario’s opposition to popular struggles and the self-activity of the poorest Venezuelans and support for middle-class notions of social change that are ultimately complicit with the right.
Who Are El Libertario?
1. A middle-class organization…
2. … with liberal, middle-class politics…
In the words of a former member, El Libertario “operates more like an NGO than a group, it’s not a grassroots movement,” and this should be no surprise since members have close relations to liberal human rights NGOs like PROVEA, where Uzcátegui works. Whereas revolutionaries worldwide have become increasingly aware of the limitations and even dangers of human rights discourse—which in recent years has been strategically co-opted by right-wing forces worldwide—El Libertario has seemingly moved in the opposite direction. All of which raises an interesting question for self-professed “anarchists”: when the all-out class war comes, will El Libertario be there to defend the human rights of our enemies? This is not to celebrate repression: I have been tear-gassed, pepper-sprayed, attacked with concussion grenades, arrested, and assaulted by police—but I have never heard this described as a “human rights violation.”
3. … that upholds middle-class leadership…
Even more astonishingly, in a country in which the poor majority—both the traditional working class and the informal sector—have become increasingly organized and revolutionary, Rodolfo Montes de Oca from El Libertario even openly supports the idea that it is the middle class that should lead the struggle. In an article replete with the obligatory references to “counter-power” and citations of Graeber and Holloway, we find the astounding suggestion that it is “the college-educated middle class, and perhaps owners of small means of production and service providers, who are the best suited to assume leadership within emerging organizations and social movements, since their basic necessities are covered and their autonomy won’t be put at risk [hipotecada].”
4. … and is absent from popular struggles…
5. … and more likely to join forces with the right…
6. … due to a caricatured “three-way fight” politics…
El Libertario like to position themselves as being equally opposed to both Chavismo and the right. While this invokes in some ways the “three-way fight” logic in the form of the lucha tripolar, or “tripolar struggle”, it is in a brutally caricatured form (although, let’s be real, three-way fight is capable of its own style="color: #0000ff;">ridiculous caricature). This was as clear during the right-wing coup of April 2002 as it is today: confronted with a coup that removed not only Chávez but also the progressive 1999 Constitution, and which left dozens dead in the streets before it was reversed through popular mass rebellion, El Libertario again stood on the sidelines, unwilling to even condemn this quasi-fascist assault on the people. (Issues 26 and 27 of El Libertario, published around the time of the coup, are conveniently missing from the web archive, but I have myself interviewed former members who left El Libertario after it took this “reactionary position”).
7. … making any mass-revolutionary outlook impossible.
But this view is not revolutionary and certainly not anarchist. Any anarchist revolution will be a mass, class-based phenomenon or it will be nothing at all. This doesn’t mean that anarchists and anti-authoritarians should simply uncritically toe the Chavista line, but instead engage directly in building revolutionary movements, spaces, and ruptures within and against the mainstream of the Bolivarian movement, as thousands of Venezuelan revolutionaries have been doing for years if not decades.
Will the Real Anarchists Please Stand Up?
While capital-A anarchism has never been a major force in Venezuela, the liberal anarchism of El Libertario does not enjoy the monopoly on the term that it would like you to believe. A good example was the Revolutionary Anarchist Federation of Venezuela (FARV), which unfortunately dissolved last year. The FARV represented the voice of revolutionary, decolonial, class-struggle anarchism in Venezuela, but like most non-middle-class movements, this was not a voice that was amplified by translated books or US speaking tours, and so I will quote at length from the FARV to compensate.
Further, suggesting that those possessing the means of production are rightful movement leaders is to “validate exploitation, difference, and privileges rather than combating them, which we understand to be the reason we are anarchists to begin with… Proudhon cried ‘property is theft,’ and so that small property… is therefore a small theft, a small parasitic action.” Worst of all, to openly celebrate middle-class origins by embracing middle-class politics is to contribute to discrediting of anarchism itself by reinforcing the oldest caricature of anarchism in the books, “sustain[ing] the fallacies Bolsheviks have woven about anarchism… that anarchism is a petit-bourgeois ideology.” For the FARV,
The anarcho-liberals [of El Libertario] are part of the middle class and proud of it, so we know that they will never work against their own interests… [But] fortunately, the popular movement doesn’t let anyone act in its name, much less the middle class. Fortunately, social movements are not the same as the popular movement. Fortunately, the popular movement continues to advance toward collective forms of leadership.
The correct position toward these popular movements is not of course the passivity of “simple spectators” as Uzcátegui would have it, and the FARV rejects the three-way fight insofar as it represents “the posture of the ‘enlightened third way’… which does not participate in struggles but only watches, criticizes, and pretends to give the orders because it believes it possesses a luminous truth. An arrogant and authoritarian ‘anarchism’ that we do not share.”
Our struggle is for libertarian communism, and so we are not willing to go back to a ‘state of affairs’ in which: we will be persecuted, where alternative media will be closed, where lands and businesses today under communal control will be returned to large landholders and businessmen, where there will be systematic violations of human rights, where the juridical instruments that can help the popular cause [i.e., the 1999 Constitution] and the future construction of truly horizontal and assembly-based communal spaces will disappear… to regress to a past that, scarcely concealed, awaits a fascist backlash.
Instead, from this position in concrete popular struggles, the FARV embraces a different sort of three-way fight:
We are equally against those supposedly ‘leftist’ positions that want us to believe that ‘this is more of the same’ as we are against those top-down accommodationists who insist that ‘this is a true revolution’… and even more certain ‘personalities’ who take refuge in anarchist ideas (and certain Trotskyist positions) to cover up the fact that they speak from a bourgeois perspective, and thereby to invisibilize struggles and processes of change… We also say to these anarchists-turned-hucksters, commercializers and tourists of ideas, that fascism shall not pass.
This means resisting the automatic solidarities and stifling confines of a capital-A anarchism that limits itself to those self-described anarchists:
In the present moment there exist many examples of spaces that, while not defining themselves as anarchist, are nevertheless engaged in everyday libertarian practices: communities that possess a certain degree of social production, self-government, and self-defense… [like] Collectives in 23 de Enero, Alexis Vive Collective, Montaraz Collective, among others.
El Libertario, faithful to their class background and class politics, “are more afraid of Chavismo and the revolution than fascism, the oligarchy, and the Venezuelan right-wing, with which they gladly march.” So it is no surprise that these collectives celebrated by the FARV for their tacitly anarchist activity are the very same collectives that are today demonized by a fearful bourgeoisie as well as their anarchist collaborators who mimic elites in their denunciation of “militia groups.”
The FARV’s reply to El Libertario’s strange right-wing bedfellows is blunt:
No, we have nothing in common with the bourgeoisie. El Libertario and the FARV are not the same thing. It is very different to say ‘social movements’ (meaning NGOs and foundations) vs. ‘popular movement’ (collectives and working groups, campesino fronts, land occupation movements, indigenous movements, health committees, land committees, etc). Bakunin is right, the middle class is one thing, with its aspirations and conceits; the children of the people with their struggles, dreams, and victories are another thing entirely… As children of the people we don’t hope for anything of the middle class, and much less its leadership… We choose not to be on the side of a class that fears the revolution…
We prefer instead to be with the popular movement, with its rebellious, disobedient, and ungovernable temperament; with its self-managed experiments, with its steps toward socialism, with its libertarian yearnings and its anarchist intuition… we need to look for [this anarchist impulse]—not in the middle class, not in the communiqués of the bourgeoisie, not on the internet or in the official speeches of university professors, not on television or in Chávez’s statements or actions, but in the barrios, in the communities in struggle, at the heart of the popular movement.
In style="text-decoration: underline;">We Created Chávez, I wrote that “Far too often, discussions of contemporary Venezuela revolve around the figure of the Venezuelan president. Whether from opponents on the conservative right or the anarchist left or supporters in between, the myopia is the same.” Similarly, the FARV argue that:
We, on the other hand, consider these accomplishments to be the product of the historic struggles of the popular movement, which have cost us and continue to cost us blood and sacrifice… Although El Libertario, along with the right-wing opposition and the red [Chavista] bureaucracy attempt to erase all traces of the autonomy of popular action, we the children of the people will continue organizing, they will hear our voices more often and will have to get used to seeing our faces.
Not everyone who calls themselves anarchists are worthy of the name, and before revolutionaries in the U.S. or elsewhere re-post articles, translate books, or organize speaking tours, we should be clear what it is we are supporting. Especially in Latin America, moreover, we must be attentive to the thousands engaged in revolutionary anti-state activity that don’t even call themselves “anarchists.” To support middle-class, liberal anarchists like El Libertario is to be against the revolution, against concrete popular struggles of the Venezuelan poor, and even against anarchism itself.