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Why did abstention win?

The Jacobin vision of revolutions directed from above by vanguards and singular personalities has to be done away with, says Javier Biardeau. The abstainers in the Venezuelan referendum were taking a clear-cut stand against reform proposals that had not involved them

January 30, 2008
5 min read

In the end we shouldn’t be surprised. Mere wishes do not come true and crude reality imposes constraints on unbridled illusions. Political defeat coupled with a high abstention rate places the strategic leadership of the revolution in the only rational and emotional space to overcome the current situation: to recognise mistakes and correct them, starting with the one-sided view of the infallibility of the leader.

With the abstention of close to 7.2 million voters (45 per cent of the electorate), and the extremely narrow margin between those who voted in favour and those who voted against the reform (51 to 49 per cent), the worst-case scenario – a tie with catastrophically high abstentions – was not only the most probable event but the actual one.

Political abstention

The opposition stayed in neutral gear relative to the December 2006 presidential elections. The stark truth is that the reforms were lost because there was a decrease in the social base of support for the revolution, a real evaporation of the Bolivarian vote. The rejection of the reform proposals is clear-cut, no matter what rationalisations are created to suggest a supposed apolitical or anti-political basis for the abstentions. There was a widespread political abstention by the revolutionary social base. This is the first sensible conclusion in the face of the electoral results.

The second important conclusion is that we shouldn’t give undue importance to the media campaign for a ‘No’ vote and its manipulation of people’s fear of what the reforms might mean. No doubt it played a role, but it wasn’t the critical issue.

It was predictable that the Bolivarian vote would shift not into the ‘No’ camp, but towards abstention. Indeed, despite the propagandistic blackmail that sought to convert the referendum into a plebiscite and make people’s decisions on how to vote an issue of loyalty, we can see a profound protest in the Bolivarian camp. To three million Bolivarians, neither the way in which the constitutional reform was handled nor some of its core aspects seemed appropriate. Had the different proposals been voted on thematically, there would have been a lower abstention rate.

Responsibility for defeat

The largest share of responsibility for the defeat lies in those who convinced Chávez that the revolution depends exclusively on him personally. This is an error. Perhaps without Chávez there would be no revolution, but neither will there be one only with Chávez. There is a need to correct the tendency to minimise the leading role of the people in times of important deliberations and decisions.

‘Apparat Chávismo’, the leadership of PSUV, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, was defeated. The revolution is built from the bottom up, or it wears down from above. It is not a question of ‘it was not possible for now’. I will not tire of repeating this. The path chosen for building the political feasibility of the reform was wrong. The proposed reform was very badly designed and handled. There were substantive issues that go beyond a constitutional reform, that did not break with old-style bureaucratic socialism, and that now require a radical debate.

The minefield of the proposed constitutional reform exploded in the electoral field, and it wasn’t possible to move forward. Even its constitutional legality was severely questioned, despite attempts by the constitutional chamber to iron out the wrinkles. The mistreatment of disagreements has exacted a heavy toll on the vertical style of doing politics. Decisions should not imposed, they should be discussed.

There is no revolutionary democracy without deliberative democracy, without internal democracy in the Bolivarian camp. Chávez is wrong if he thinks simply that ‘three million votes are missing’ and that ‘these people did not vote against us, they abstained’. They abstained because essential aspects of the draft reform, unmodified, do not constitute a proposal for a democratic counter-hegemonic project. Do not underestimate the people, nor their intuition or capacity for political, intellectual and moral autonomy.

Unity in diversity

The struggle for socialism must go on, but a distinction needs to be made between authoritarian hegemony and democratic counter-hegemony. Unity in diversity is the viable path to a plural and libertarian socialism. Any socialism that liquidates democratic pluralism, either by word or by deed, will not pass the test of popular sovereignty. Not only must the maximum degree of social equality be achieved but there must be political equality too.

The Jacobin vision of revolutions directed from above by vanguards and singular personalities has to be done away with. It is time for profound reflection in the revolutionary leadership; time to finish with both the pragmatism of the right wing within Chávismo and the Stalinism of Chávismo’s ultra-left; time to end corruption and bureaucratism; time to stop the drift towards Caesarist-populism; and time to renew critical socialist thought. It is also time to ask forgiveness for the many abuses committed and to show some humility.

It is time to resolve a dilemma that is not an electoral one: either we build a truly democratic socialism, led from the bottom up, from popular power, organised around its diversity and multiplicity, or we end up compromising with the right and all those who want to take a populist path without profound changes.

The referendum result has defeated four groups in particular: the apparat bureaucracy, right-wing Chávismo and its Caesarist myth, Stalinism, and the authoritarian attitudes of the ego-politik that exist, I hope temporarily, in Chávez himself. Our aim must be to construct a socialism of the democratic majorities. Nothing more, nothing less. To do this, we do not have to radicalise the discourse; we must deepen and renew democratic, socialist and revolutionary practice, from the bottom up, towards the construction of an autonomous, democratic and revolutionary popular power.

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