Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Meaning of 21st Century Socialism for Venezuela

The following article written by Gregory Wilpert originally appeared on the website, July 11, 2006. This is a revised version of a paper that was presented at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Havens Center, April 11, 2006.

In what appeared to be a surprise to almost everyone, on January 30, 2005, in a speech to the 5th World Social Forum, President Hugo Chavez announced that he supported the creation of socialism of the 21st century in Venezuela. According to Chavez, this socialism would be different from the socialism of the 20th century. While Chavez was vague about exactly how this new socialism would be different, he implied it would not be a state socialism as was practiced in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe or as is practiced in Cuba today. Rather, it would be a socialism that would be more pluralistic and less state-centered.

“We have assumed the commitment to direct the Bolivarian Revolution towards socialism and to contribute to the socialist path, with a new socialism, a socialism of the 21st century, which is based in solidarity, in fraternity, in love, in justice, in liberty, and in equality,” said Chavez in another speech in mid 2006.[1] Also, this socialism is not pre-defined. Rather, said Chavez, we must, “transform the mode of capital and move towards socialism, towards a new socialism that must be constructed every day.”[2]

Given this rather vague explanation and the concrete policies the Chavez government has pursued in the past seven years, is Venezuela really heading towards something that could be called "Socialism of the 21st century"? That is, is Venezuela heading towards something that might be called a post-capitalist order in which the age-old dream of individual freedom, equality, and social justice (liberté, egalité, et fraternité, to use the motto of the French Revolution) becomes a reality for all its citizens?

Before we can answer that question, we need to clarify exactly what is meant by the term capitalism, which is a notoriously vague term. A relatively simple definition of capitalism identifies at least three predominant elements in a social order for us to call it capitalist. First, a capitalist order involves the private ownership of the means of production, that is, of land, factories, and other forms of capital that allows the production of sellable goods and services.

A second crucial element of capitalism, in its "pure" form, is that distribution and exchange are regulated via competitive markets. Competitive markets are an essential and integral aspect of capitalism, which help regulate not only distribution, but also prices and thereby guide what things are or are not produced. As long as owners are interested in making sure that they do not lose their investment to competitors who try to maximize their profit and who reinvest this profit in their business, all owners must aim to maximize profits. That is, private ownership of production combined with competitive markets also necessarily implies the pursuit of profit maximization.

Finally, the third essential element of capitalism is a regulatory system, a state, which helps correct capitalism's frequent dysfunctions and erratic behavior. That is, capitalism needs a state that not only makes sure that contracts between individuals, upon which exchanges are based, are adjudicated in cases where disputes arise, but also acts as a mediator in social conflicts, usually between owners and non-owners, who enter into frequent conflicts over issues relating to inequality. While social movements have historically managed to demand that the state responds better to their needs, mostly by democratizing the state, the state is to a large extent influenced by the owners of capital because these lobby, finance political campaigns and mass media, and generally wield much power in capitalist democracies.

Moving away from capitalism, however, does not, by itself, mean that a society is moving towards socialism. After all, it could move towards feudalism or towards some other form of undesirable social organization. What, then, would constitute socialism or, more specifically 21st century socialism? Rather than engage in a long theoretical discussion of the matter, I will just provide a rough outline, based on what it is not (capitalism) and the fulfillment of certain social ideals or values. That is, I would argue that in contrast to the actually practiced socialism of the 20th century (mostly in Eastern Europe), 21st century socialism would fulfill all three aims of the French Revolution. State socialism of the 20th century fulfilled only the aims of social justice (or solidarity or fraternité) and, to a limited extent, of formal equality (since party members were “more equal” (Orwell) than non-members). 21st century socialism would thus have to fulfill (completely) the ideals of formal equality, liberty, and solidarity (or social justice). In other words, for 21st century socialism to distinguish itself from 20th century state socialism, it would have to be a libertarian socialism, which assures that the “free development of each is a condition for the free development of all” (Marx).

[1] Linking Alternatives II Conference, Vienna, May 13, 2006 (

[2] Ibid.

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