Labour Wrap: Political pitfalls for labour

TRADE unions that define themselves as Marxist-Leninist are treading on dangerous ground, says Terry Bell in his latest Labour Wrap. Such usually ill-defined labels belong in the political party arena and not among unions.

He raises this issue because the country’s largest union, the National Union of Metalworkers, (Numsa), has not only defined itself in this way, it also announced last week that it would effectively build a workers’ party. At the same time, says Bell, the union hinted at a model for what it terms “socialism”: the “Bolivarian revolution” led by the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Bell maintains that this uncritical support for Chavez and Venezuela is an example of opinion based on blind faith rather than rational analysis. It is of little help to anyone, let alone the labour movement.

Chavez, he points out, was an army officer who declared that he wanted to see an end to the gross social and economic inequalities that exist. He staged a coup that failed, went to prison and was seen by many Venezuelan workers and poor as a martyr in the cause of democracy and equality. As such, “another political messiah” stepped onto the stage when he was elected president in 1999.

But, says Bell, support for Chavez grew in his early years of power because, using a flood of petrodollars when the oil price was high, he financed everything from free education to health care, cheap food and various grandiose projects. When the oil price fell and the bonanza ended, the petrodollar subsidised economy almost collapsed, causing suffering for the workers and the poor. Local agriculture was almost destroyed by cheap imports.

As a result, Bell maintains there are clear lessons to be learned from Venezuela about how not to go about change. But there are other lessons too, in the latest pronouncements from Numsa that seem to blur the distinction between the union and a political party.  

This, says Bell, is dangerous in that it implies the sort of “conveyor belt” system that applied in regions such as the former Soviet Union. These provided a “grotesque caricature” of everything socialism was supposed to be.

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