Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali