The slaves destroyed tirelessly. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and, at the slightest provocation, death… they did as they had been taught. And yet they were surprisingly moderate. far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression.
—C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins
Venezuela’s Jacobins are in the news again. Whether in the commemorations of the first year since the death of Hugo Chávez — a veritable Toussaint — or in Nicolás Maduro’s recent interview with Christiane Amanpour, discussions of Venezuela continue to center on the towering heights of political power. To some extent this is defensive: in recent weeks, those seeking to restore the feudal privileges of the deposed Venezuelan ancien régime have attempted to harness largely middle-class student protests to depose the Maduro government, and the international community has heeded their call.
Well-heeled domestic elites (whose English shows no trace of an accent) have taken to Twitter and the international media to mobilize solidarities. They have been well-received by the US press and a slew of naïve celebrities, who eagerly regurgitate exaggerations, misrepresentations, and outright lies about so-called “human rights’ abuses” at the hands of the Maduro government. These attempts to seamlessly stitch “violence” to the “revolution,” however, have fallen increasingly flat as the days pass and the anti-Chavistas grow increasingly desperate and divided.
After a few deaths at the hands of government forces — some resulting in arrests of the police and soldiers involved — the brunt of the violence is now falling upon bystanders and the Chavistas themselves, as with the two shot dead by opposition gunmen in a wealthy Caracas neighborhood on March 6, and a Chilean woman killed on March in Mérida after helping neighbors clear barricades.
The Cruelties of Property
While the reactionary protestors’ slide towards brutality may doom their cause in the short run,questions of violence and the revolution remain unresolved. But it does reflect something that appeared a truism for C.L.R. James: that “[t]he cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression.” The disproportionality of reactionary violence has been a feature of the Bolivarian revolutionary process from the very beginning.
The Bolivarian process was born of rebellion and massacre, with each side contributing decisively. On February 27, 1989, the Venezuelan people rebelled against neoliberal structural adjustment in a week-long riot known as the Caracazo. Those forever excluded — economically, socially, politically, racially, and geographically — took over spaces previously forbidden, traumatizing an entire generation of Venezuela’s bourgeoisie.
If a reminder of James’ point were necessary, it was provided during the short-lived coup against Chávez in April 2002, which saw more killed in a matter of hours than in previous years. This tendency is again confirmed today, as the reactionary opposition takes to the streets, fueled by a racial and class hatred of the Chavista “hordes” who have so often been smeared as violent. The hypocrisy of violently attacking those one deems violent should not surprise us, as it is a constant feature that confirms Frantz Fanon’s dictum that for those relegated to non-being, to even appear is a violent act. Attacking privilege will always be portrayed as violent by those in power.
Today the question of violence, as well as the task — impossible as it is unavoidable — of measuring or somehow gauging it, is once again on the agenda. But despite exaggeration in the foreign media resulting from what Iñigo Errejón has called the “mediatic overrepresentation” of the protests, James’ observation holds: that even in the Haitian Revolution, so reputedly “barbaric,” the true barbarians were the powerful, the “old slave-owners who burnt a little powder in the arse of a Negro, who buried him alive for insects to eat.” And so too James’ prescription: “for these there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink.”
Like a good bourgeois he had an immense respect for royal and noble blood.
—C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins
Class in Venezuela has never been solely about money, but has instead revolved around that peculiar mélange of race and class that is lineage, an inherited nobility that is itself a source of capital. Class is not something one acquires or buys into easily — more often, it is something that one is born with. While this was once associated with those elite whites known as Mantuanos, or in Caracas quite simply “masters of the valley,” mantuanaje has been replaced by what, in a recent ethnography, Ociel López calls sifrinaje, the “cultural ethos” of Venezuela’s posh snobs, or sifrinos.
Through sifrinaje, all the symbolic rage of displaced elites is mobilized and transmitted into the jealous middle classes through the “denigration of popular subjects and the criminalization of any popular action” with epithets for the poor like “monkeys,” “hordes,” and “scum.” In recent weeks, the scornful terms of choice have been “colectivos” — a loose reference to the organized grassroots sectors of the revolutionary process — repeatedly and groundlessly blamed for any and all violence (often later discovered to have been committed by others).
Such pejoratives themselves serve to legitimize reactionary violence, as when a retired general tweeted out the suggestion that opposition protestors hang wire at the barricades at a specific height, with the goal of “neutralizing the [Chavista] motorcycle hordes.”
These protests began, however, not with mantuanos or sifrinos but with a very different political identity whose center of gravity lay further westward, at the foot of the Andes in remote Táchira state: gochos. Gochos are reputedly hard-headed and combative, and here the guarimba barricades have been the most proudly violent. One protestor, rough-hewn weapon in hand, told the New York Times, “we’re not peaceful here.”
When the protests went nationwide, gocho pride swelled, but as a recent tweet demonstrates, this is about more than simply regional identity: “Los gochos son los putos amos de Venezuela,” “the gochos are the fucking [rightful] masters of Venezuela.”
While urban elites often mocked the gochos as backward hillbillies, the region produced an astonishing seven presidents (dictators included) — in the twentieth century. Gocho identity as hard-working mountaineers emerged in direct contrast to the perceived laziness of coastal slaves, and their pride was never fully separable from caste superiority: “they contrasted their austere way of life with that of the darker-hued lowland Venezuelans, whom they depicted as being descendants of fun-loving and frolicking slave ancestors.”
Politically conservative, disdainful of the racially inferior, and with a celebration of industriousness that slides quickly into scorn for the poor: picture something like a Venezuelan Tea Party constituency.
Most recently, elites nationwide had no trouble agreeing on a president who was himself nicknamed El Gocho: Carlos Andrés Pérez, who imposed the 1989 neoliberal reform package that sparked the Caracazo rebellion and everything that has come since. The poor rebels of the barrios, meanwhile, found little difficulty in the inverse: during the rebellion, “fuera el Gocho, out with the Gocho,” was a common refrain.
I recently spoke with a Venezuelan expat who described the play of identities in terms of Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan: the gochos burning barricades in the streets of western Venezuela see themselves as “the true Venezuelans defending their neighborhoods from the heavily racialized colectivos,” but in the process they come to approximate the very same violence that they attribute to this imagined enemy.
A similar superiority complex drives protests nationwide: as one resident of the working-class zone of El Valle in southern Caracas described it to me, those manning the burning guarimba reside in the tall apartment blocks lining the main avenue and “think they are better than the barrio.”
The Jacobins were authoritarian in outlook. They wished to act with the people and for them. The sans culottes on the contrary were extreme democrats: they wanted the direct government of the people by the people; if they demanded a dictatorship against the aristocrats they wished to exercise it themselves.
—C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins
If we are against unnecessary brutality, there is nevertheless a radically democratic form of brutality that we cannot disavow entirely. This is the same brutality that “dragged the Bourbons off the throne” and that, confronted with the relentless conspiracy to reinstitute slavery, ultimately led to the massacre of the whites of Saint-Domingue, to which James responded bluntly: “so much the worse for the whites.”
This was not brutality for brutality’s sake, however, and much less the more violent and more repugnant brutality in the name of ossified hierarchy. It is instead a strange paradox: egalitarian brutality, the radically democratic dictatorship of the wretched of the earth.
Those smeared today as colectivos and “the horde,” slandered as “Tupamaros” and in prior decades as “ñangaras,” are in fact the most direct and organic expression of the wretched of the Venezuelan earth. They are the most politicized and revolutionary segment of the discarded human mass that the opposition has never cared about for a second. If they are authoritarian, it is only to the degree that they insist that the last be first.
As the current minister of communes stated in a recent interview, “the collectives are synonymous with organization, not violence,” and this organization is a radically local and directly democratic phenomenon that seeks to transform the state itself. As many revolutionary militants have made perfectly clear to me, they are with Chavismo only as long as Chavismo is with the revolution.
Even within some sectors of Chavismo, there exists a dangerous class disdain for the poorest that runs the risk of seeing residents of the barrios as beneficiaries rather than protagonists of the Bolivarian process. The Bolivarian Revolution itself has ironically created some of these beneficiaries among the “middle-lower classes that are growing in recent years thanks to oil income and the ‘fattening’ of the state. The bureaucracy [has emerged] as a class, with its own interests and new fears.” If the Jacobins of the Bolivarian process turn toward this sector at the expense of the revolutionary base, they run the mortal risk of “losing influence in the barrio as the privileged space for the production of Chavismo” as a political identity.
Toussaint, like Robespierre, destroyed his own left-wing, and with it sealed his own doom.
—C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins
The Bolivarian Revolution was never about Hugo Chávez the individual. It preceded and exceeded him, just as the sans culottes of France and Haiti pressed their own Jacobins forward, continuing in their absence. Just as the sans culottes a century later built the Paris Commune, so too do Venezuelan revolutionaries today set about a similar task under the banner of “¡Comuna o Nada!,” “the Commune or Nothing!”
The same people tarred as colectivos and the “horde” are those who today dedicate themselves to the slow and difficult construction of radically democratic and participatory socialist alternatives.
Theirs is a radically democratic form of brutality, one that spares no effort or means in destroying structures of privilege. Against opposition mythmaking, the Chavista government has not unleashed this sort of popular brutality, but has instead served to contain it. But what would happen were the people no longer held back? Despite thousands of anxious pages penned through the centuries by political thinkers fearful of the “tyranny of the majority,” the history of our world has seen far more of the opposite: the tyranny of small minorities, racial, colonial, and economic elites.
The Bolivarian process today confronts economic barriers — themselves inherently political and amplified by Chávez’s death and the relentless opposition assault on Maduro. What is needed today, and what is more urgent than ever, is not dialogue or reconciliation, not harmony and understanding, but a radical commitment to press decisively forward.
Venezuelans are demanding fair prices, but these are still set by capitalists. Venezuelans are demanding safe streets, but the police have been a poor vehicle for confronting mafias. Venezuelans are demanding a deepening of participatory institutions, but powerful sectors want to keep their hands on the oil rent. A Gordian Knot is binding, the threads relentlessly intertwining and demanding to be cut.
It is not the Venezuelan Jacobins that will save us, but the sans culottes.