The Leftist Backlash Against the Democratic Socialists’ Fun Trip to Venezuela

Anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist individuals and organizations are criticizing the DSA for supporting the Maduro regime. It’s a debate that reveals conflicting views on what socialism is

The stubborn refusal of leftists, especially socialists and communists, to see what was happening in Venezuela and their willful blindness, have been sources of constant and simmering rage within me. So when Venezuelan Workers Solidarity (VWS) called out Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) on its delegation visiting Venezuela for a tryst with the Maduro government in a luxury hotel, I was initially delighted. 

The brilliant VWS critique led me to believe that perhaps self-defined socialists might even rethink their theories three decades after the collapse of “real socialism.” But that hasn’t been the case with the largest socialist organization in the U.S., Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It seems they’ve yet to learn what Margaret Atwood recalls as one of her two verities. The anti-totalitarian author of The Handmaid’s Tale, who has evidently managed to politically sleepwalk through multiple visits to Cuba, says that “no government is its people,” precisely what Venezuelan Workers Solidarity (VWS) pointed out when the DSA began a crowdfunding campaign for a trip to Venezuela.

With Venezuelans in the U.S. and other countries calling DSA to account, a small sector of the Left is debating to whom should leftists extend their internationalist solidarity: socialist governments or the people (suffering) under them?

The VWS is very small. Two representatives I interviewed said there are some “25 or 30” in the U.S., and one might rightly suspect it’s closer to 25. The VWS also seems to be of relatively recent origin: their blog only goes back to November 2020. So when they speak out against the predominant socialist tendency, they’re even less likely to get a hearing from DSA than Trotskyites did from the Stalinist left in the years of “real socialism.” But make no mistake: the VWS is holding its own in the debate.

This debate comes to the fore in the larger question of what real socialism is after “real socialism.” For Bernie Sanders, and presumably, for a significant part of the DSA, it doesn’t mean what it historically meant: the state ownership of the means of production and distribution. We can either go with the real “socialisms” of today—according to The Week, the list is “surprisingly small”: Cuba, China, Vietnam and Laos—or go the hipster route and just use the word as a shibboleth to signal that you’re cool. The DSA takes the middle way between these two routes toward a definition. In some ways, it’s been more inclusive of what it considers socialism, and it also tends to hew to a more traditional, one might say, meaning-based, definition. 

For instance, despite the democratic element in its name, the DSA smells like Leninism. As DSA member Dan La Botz says of the International Committee’s dance with Maduro: “Support for authoritarian governments doesn’t speak well of DSA’s commitment to democratic socialism.” In its proposed first draft of a program (2021), the DSA said they are “standing in solidarity with the working class of every country, and establishing relations with existing socialist projects, including the governments of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia…” Fortunately, that language was removed in the second draft of the DSA platform—perhaps the VWS had an impact? 

Whatever their vision of socialism, both the DSA and the VWS are clearly “anti-capitalist” and “anti-imperialist.” DSA advocates “abolishing capitalism,” for instance, though what they mean by capitalism isn’t by any means clearer than their definition of socialism. As for the “anti-imperialism,” VWS member Simon stated flatly in an email he sent me, that “nothing good has ever come from U.S. intervention in Latin America, it’s been a force against democratic rights and peoples’ self-determination.” Here I would concede that the record of the U.S. is mixed—support, or even tolerance, for Videla in Argentina, Stroessner in Paraguay, and other dictators, not to mention training the genocidal armies in Guatemala and elsewhere, were atrocious crimes. Nevertheless, a Manichaean perspective such as Simon’s on the U.S.’ historic role in the world is so simplistic it’s cartoonish. These poorly defined positions on capitalism and international politics (imperialism) raised questions for me, questions for which I received no answers from Simon or the other VWS members I interviewed. Because they continue to haunt me, I thought I might leave them here. 

First, if both factions in the current debate believe in “abolishing capitalism,” what problem could they possibly have with the Venezuelan regime? Not only has it destroyed national capitalism with currency and price controls, but nearly all international capitalists have long ago decided to leave the country. The state funds, a huge source of capital, have all been taken out of use in the economy (and deposited in private accounts of Maduro and his cronies), so Venezuela is practically devoid of capital. Even the State (and this should make the Trotskyists happy) is effectively bankrupt having lost the money to print money five years ago. It appears that Venezuela is effectively the most successful anti-capitalist, privatized socialist country in the world.

As for the anti-imperialism, I might be a bit more sympathetic to the argument of both sects-in-dispute were it not for Luz Varela’s brilliant argument that “the great North American power has no need to invade such a conflicted Latin American country as ours if the aim is to take control of its oil (…) It has dollars, lots of dollars to pay for Venezuelan oil (…) In fact, they made Venezuela a rich country.” Professor Varela also says that U.S. oil companies in Venezuela found themselves “putting up the capital, assuming the risks, paying wages and the expenses of infrastructure, reinvesting, paying extremely high taxes and still making huge profits.” Indeed, one might be tempted to applaud their daring. 

I hope the debate between the VWS and the DSA goes on and becomes the much-needed debate as to what “solidarity” with Venezuela would look like, and whether it should be extended to governments or to people. And here I am, with the Venezuelan people, be they socialists, Trotskyists, or even Trumpsters. Unfortunately, the self-described anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist socialist left, including the VWS, offer few viable suggestions except a rhetorical “support for the workers and movements from below”—excluding, of course, those deemed “right-wing.” As for concrete goals and objectives, neither the DSA nor VWS can offer more than empty language and worthless in-group arguments.

The Venezuelan economy has been destroyed. Chávez and Maduro, not U.S. sanctions, did that. Venezuela was already collapsing before the sanctions. Right now, Venezuela needs capital. And no one will be willing to give that to the country until it has responsible leaders who will enforce property rights to protect capitalist investments from criminals and from the likes of anti-capitalist socialists. Furthermore, that capital won’t be forthcoming from the workers and the “movements from below,” because they don’t have it. It will require the World Bank, the IMF, other international financial institutions, and private investment from corporations like Chevron, to rebuild PDVSA. 

In short, to recover from the current disaster, Venezuela will require both capitalism and imperialism in large measures. 

It’s time for a new solidarity movement based on sober, non-ideological thinking that isn’t tangled up in its own language and antiquated ideas that didn’t even work when they were new and fresh. Unfortunately, we won’t want to look to the socialists for help with starting it.

Clifton Ross

Clifton Ross recently published his political memoir documenting his conversion from Chavismo to the opposition. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, and their two cats.