Venezuela and Revolutionary Moralism

"If I Can't Dance..."

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges… but these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” – Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme

Oh, Hugo. The latest news from Venezuela borders on comical, if it didn’t sound like it was dredged up from the playbook of a failed team from last century. President Chavez is pushing a moral crusade to instill the principles of Che Guevara’s “New Socialist Man” on the Venezuelan population. Chavez wants to heavily limit whiskey imports, raise taxes on tobacco products, and encourage people to not “douse foods with too much hot sauce, exercise regularly, eat low-cholesterol foods, respect speed limits,” or have too much cosmetic surgery.

None of these are inherently bad principles on their own, but leftist paternalism is an old tradition and as bad as its right-wing cousin, especially when it carries the weight of the government behind it.

Marxists and radicals of all stripes have always had to contend with the consciousness created by capitalism as they struggle for a humanist future. Unfortunately there are two souls of this struggle: austere rejection of worldly pleasures and a libertine embrace of that pleasure. The former conjures up images of barracks socialism – Chinese and Russian Stalinists demanding that their socialist citizenry abandon the false values of capitalist society, and enforcing harsh penalties if they refuse. Capitalist mores would be educated out of the population; I fear Hugo has imbibed this from his love of the Cuban Stalinists Che and Castro.

I would argue that there is another way, understood by Marx himself, out of this conundrum without paternalism or self-denial. Any revolutionary movement or post-revolutionary society would be made up of people who had been socialized within capitalism. Thus, the struggle within them would always be against who they had been and where they had lived their entire lives, something Marx understood could not be legislated out of them. The birth pangs of the new order would contain defects from the old world, and there is no way around that. The new order would be a collective association of producers, with no masters or slaves, allowing people and society to develop fully for the first time.

Thus, instead of moralizing, those of us who wish real change should celebrate openness and those who embrace pleasure for the sake of self-fulfillment. The French Situationists, writing in the 1960s about the Paris Commune, described it as the biggest festival of the nineteenth century, where the workers of Paris understood they had become masters of their own fates. Old ways of thinking crumbled as people questioned the old order, old boundaries, old limitations placed on them by society and that they had internalized. Any restructuring of culture and mores requires introspection by a bulk of the population; I would advise Mr. Chavez that he should question the old moral order: religion, sexual values, inhibitions about alcohol and drugs, machismo, and challenge those who want to see a socialist future to inhibit themselves less, not more – but to use those lessened inhibitions towards self-fulfillment and change, not empty consumerism.

Emma Goldman once said (apocryphally): “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution.” Mr. Chavez has taken admirable steps towards a welfare state – there has been no revolution yet – reducing unemployment from 18% to 8%, extending medical care to all, and a range of social programs for the poor. Yet, if he wants a revolution, he should take care to make sure that there is joy, life, and happiness in the revolutionaries, not self-denial. Then we will all be dancing with them.

Peter LaVenia is Co-Chair of the NY State Green Party and a PhD candidate in Political Theory, SUNY Albany. He can be reached at: Chair2@gpny.org.

Read other articles by Peter.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Daniel Brockert said on October 18th, 2007 at 11:06pm #

    I definitely agree that morality cannot be legislated, but responsibility can be legislated. It is irresponsible to drink and smoke in excess or drive over the speed limit and all of those activities can hurt other people. So while we shouldn’t preach self-denial, an obvious flawed approach, it appears that these types of laws can work.
    A couple months ago the Venezuelan government reduced sales taxes to reduce inflation. The government had to come up with some means of recuperating lost revenue. Taxing cigarettes and alchohol is an effective means of doing that. The morality Chavez is espousing may just be an elaborate justification for maintaining sales tax revenues.
    As far as driving the speed limit is concerned, we have evidence that strict laws work. In the United States and Cuba there are strict driving laws that are frequently enforced. As a result traffic accidents are less common in those places than in Venezuela. In Venezuela traffic is a nightmare, people are frequently killed in accidents and enforcement is very rare. Getting people to go the speed limit would be a very sound public policy.

  2. Jonas South said on October 20th, 2007 at 9:14am #

    Peter LaVenia hits the nail squarely on the head: socialist societies undoubtedly benefit from leaders who value integrity, morals and certain personal attributes. In this, Chavez is unique in that he looms larger than life in Venezuela, and his admirers hang on his every word. But their enthusiasm can lead them to conflate private behavior with public policy, to legislate with impatience, and not realize that they have reached the point when it becomes counter productive. Twentieth century history offers ample proof that private behavior can be modified only with a soft touch, and only over a long period of time.

    For those of us unburdened with leadership roles, there is another way:

    ‘He who follows dao teaches the lesson of no words. Immoral men provide the teaching material without charge, and no student is ever turned away.’ Laotse, circa 5th century BCE.

  3. Shabnam said on October 20th, 2007 at 10:50am #

    I agree with Daniel Brockert who writes:

    “I definitely agree that morality cannot be legislated, but responsibility can be legislated.”

    However, I don’t understand why Mr. Mike McMilan using this space irresponsibly and instead of “add to the discussion”, he copies article which is not even related to this issue and paste it here to widen and extend his campaign of Anti IRAN propaganda to this website.
    This article has been copied and pasted already in the “Add to the discussion” section under another article with the title “An Anti-Imperialist Case Against Iran’s Nuclear Program” by Fiyouzat, dated October 18, 2007. Apparently, Mr. Mcmilan, has gone out of VIDEOS and now pasting the same article at the end of other people’s posts to spread, in his mind, anti Iran propaganda to serve the war machine of the enemies of humanities, the ZIONIST-IMPERIALIST camp.

  4. Luis S. Barrios said on October 21st, 2007 at 8:28am #

    Dear Prof. La Venia: I enjoyed your article but I must say that your understanding about the situation in Venezuela is not very accurate. To say many things in very few words, Mr. Chavez’s accomplishments have not been as much as those that his government claims neither as little that the opposition claims, but one thing is for sure: democracy is decreasing and dissapearing faster than in other country in Latin America. As a social democrat myself, I cannot accept one for the other, and he wants to duplicate Cuba’s life style in every way, an economic and political system that failed because it hides its failures in the ever-lasting excuse of American imperialism and its embargo. Venezuela’s social gains have been extremely small compared to the amount of dollars the Chavez administration has received in eight years, more than Europe did with the Marshall Plan. Doctor La Venia, whenever you have a chance, please go to Venezueula and measure with your own eyes what is going on there, and the, we’ll talk. Thank you, L. S. Barrios, Professor of Political Science.

  5. Shabnam said on October 21st, 2007 at 8:50pm #

    A message for the readers of this site:

    MIKE McNIVEN is a pro Israel, Pro Zionist and Anti Iran Propagandist who uses this site to link to the same article “Congressman Kucinich Must Find a Better Role Model than Bob Ney” that has posted many times in the past few months. Mike McNiven is a propagandist who Jamie, the rabbit Zionist, thanks him many times for his opinion.

    This article is written by an Iranian charlatan who spreads lies about “Iran Lobby” and portraits those who criticizing Bush administration for his fascist policy on Iran which is a Zionist policy, part of “Iran Lobby”. Please read a few lines from the article that McNiven gives a link to:

    “An alarming resemblance exists between Ney’s advocacy of Tehran over the past decade and Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s (D-Ohio) advocacy of Tehran now. On August 1, 2007, Baztab, the Farsi language web site controlled by the former commander of the revolutionary guards, wrote an article about Kucinich’s “lonely battle” in opposition to sanction efforts against the Iranian regime.4
    Kucinich and Ney’s support of Tehran’s ayatollahs is quite similar in method and substance. They both call for engagement with mullahs; They both vehemently fight against any type of sanction against the mullahs; They both oppose human right statements against Iran by the congress; They both associate with the same known mullahs’ proxies in the US; And they both side with Iran when it comes to Iran’s anti Israeli rhetoric.”

    Mike McNiven, A Zionist pro Israel who has disguised himself as pro Iranian people brings videos made by the monarchists, puppet of the Zionists who are cooperating with the fifth columnists, the Zionists, to help them to take power in Iran. People like Michael Ledeen and Kenneth Timmerman are part of Zionists who are working towards this goal, to bring the Shah’s family back who serves Israel.
    Hassan Daioleslam, the writer of this article which is given by Mike McNiven, the Zionist, attacking both Bob Ney and Kucinich as “Iran Lobby” and saying that both Kucinich and Ney do not want sanction against Iranian people to strangulate their economy and kill more children so they may be forced to transfer the power to puppet of the Zionist that Mike McNiven represents. Hassan Daioleslam has presented his rubbish many times at VOICE OF AMERICA, (VOA), the only place he can sell his rubbish.
    Please expose the Zionists who are sent to progressive sites to preach and spread anti Iranian people propaganda and harm the fragile movement of Anti Zionist so they can kill more Iranian children like Iraqi children to smoothen the path for further action.
    Shame on the disguised Zionist. We will not going to be silent and will expose them every time the smell is too strong to be tolerated.

  6. Mike McNiven said on October 24th, 2007 at 12:55am #

    A message for Shabnam:

    “reza said on October 22nd, 2007

    People with little logic require a lot of noise, baseless accusations and outright shameless lies to push aside reason.
    You can sholooqhesh koni all you want, Shabnam, but you’re making yourself dizzy, without persuading anyone. But, then again, maybe you are paid to storm the barn; so, if it’s paying your bills, keep rocking, sister!

    Intelligent socialists don’t find it necessary to remind everybody that they are anti-imperialists/anti-Zionists with every thing they utter, nor with every dump they take. It’s taken for granted. But, since I have affection for disabled people, for those who like to act blind and willfully deaf, my anti-imperialist stance was clearly stated.

    The noise-makers, however, don’t like to learn that Iranian people’s fight for democracy is, and must be, as has always been, and will be, for the foreseeable future, simultaneously a fight against imperialism. We, the people of the Third World, are in the same position as are African Americans; their fight too is simultaneously against colonialism/racism and for justice and true democracy, in the belly of the beast. One fight cannot be separated from the other. It is the same for us, and it is an ongoing struggle. Imperialism/colonialism don’t take breaks.

    As to the question of imperialists using the nuclear issue as an excuse to attack Iran … If imperialists want to attack, they’ll attack us. It has NOTHING to do with the nukes (that too is stated clearly in the article). They didn’t attack us in 1953 (when they overthrew our democratically elected government) because we had nukes; they attacked us for different reasons (and NOT because Mossadegh was a commie-lover). They didn’t attack Vietnam because they had nukes. They don’t attack and savage the Palestinians daily for the past sixty years because they have nukes. WAKE UP!!

    So, when they attack us in Iran, what are they going to hit first? WAKE UP!!

    Believe me, when the enemy has TEN THOUSAND nuclear warheads, having a few is no deterrent. Like Chirac said, even if a few are launched, within minutes Tehran’d be bombed back to the Stone Age. And nobody’s that stupid; least of all the mullahs. But, if there’s a live nuclear power plant (way down south, mind you, away from the seat of power), all the enemy has to do is drop a mini-nuke and let all hell loose.

    What we DON’T want, under any conditions __ just as the government in Iran should not want this either __ is a glowing radioactive zone stretching for hundreds of miles.

    Those who prefer to make believe (that imperialists need legitimate excuses to attack us lesser peoples) forget that imperialism NEVER LEAVES. We are ALWAYS under attack. Imperialism, when we are friendly to it and welcoming, attacks our livelihoods through its beloved corporations; something, I believe, the proponents of a ‘normalization’ actually wish for; meaning, they like it if imperialists should ‘normalize’ relations and allow ‘investments’ for ‘development’; nothing to do with looting the national goods of the Iranians; but, the ‘nice way’!

    Now, who’s the pro-imperialist?

    Make all the noise you want. Noise doesn’t change reality.”

  7. Shabnam said on October 24th, 2007 at 8:40am #

    Plese print my reply to REZA. Thanks