When Hugo Chávez triumphed in the 1998 presidential elections, the neoliberal capitalist model was already floundering. The choice then was none other than whether to re-establish the neoliberal capitalist model — clearly with some changes including greater concern for social issues, but still motivated by the same logic of profit seeking — or to go ahead and try to build another model.
I believe that Chávez’s chief legacy is having chosen the latter alternative. To name that alternative, he also chose to reclaim the word socialism, despite the negative baggage that the word had acquired, at the same time, however, clarifying that his was 21st-century socialism in order to distinguish it from Soviet socialism implemented during the 20th century, warning that we must not "fall into the errors of the past," into the "Stalinist deviation" that bureaucratized the party and ended up eliminating common people’s protagonism, into state capitalism that put emphasis on state property rather than workers’ own management of enterprises.
Chávez conceived of socialism as a new collective life in which equality, freedom, and real and deep democracy reign, and in which the people plays the role of protagonist; an economic system centered on human beings, not on profits; a pluralistic, anti-consumerist culture in which the act of living takes precedence over the act of owning.
Chávez thought, like Mariátegui, that 21st-century socialism cannot be a "carbon copy" and must be a "heroic creation," which is why he spoke of Bolivarian, Christian, Robinsonian,1 Amerindian socialism.
The necessity of common people’s protagonism is a recurring theme in the late Venezuelan president’s speeches and an element that distinguishes his from other proposals for democratic socialism. Participation, as protagonists, in all spheres is what allows human beings to grow and achieve self-confidence, that is to say, to develop themselves as human beings.
But this would have remained mere words if Chávez had not promoted the creation of spaces suitable for participatory processes to fully come into their own. That is why his initiative to create communal councils (self-managed community spaces), workers’ councils, student councils, and peasant councils is so important, for the purpose of forming a truly collective structure, which must express itself as a new form of decentralized state whose fundamental building blocks should be communes.
Building with people, for Chávez, meant winning their hearts and minds for a new social project. And this cannot be done by sermons, it can only be done through practice: creating opportunities for people themselves to become the builders of the project and thus to understand the project as theirs. Hence his advice: "Beware of sectarianism. Indeed there are people . . . who don’t participate in politics, who don’t belong to any party. Well, that’s OK. They are welcome. Not only that, if there’s someone from the opposition around here, give him a shout-out. Let him work and be useful. This country belongs to everyone. Open up spaces, and you’ll see that through practice many people will change themselves."2
Chávez was not naïve, as some might think; he knew that the forces opposed to the materialization of this project are enormously powerful. But to be a realist doesn’t mean to fall for the conservative vision of politics conceived as the art of the possible. For Chávez, the art of politics was to make the impossible possible, not by pure voluntarism, but by, starting from the existing reality, seeking to create conditions for changing it, by building a correlation of forces favorable to change. He understood that, to make possible in the future what appears impossible today, it is necessary to change the correlation of forces on the international as well as national levels. Throughout the years of his administration, he worked masterfully to achieve it, knowing that, for the purpose of building political power, agreements at top leadership levels do not suffice — the most important thing is to build a social force.
1 Translator’s Note: In the footsteps of Venezuelan philospher Simón Rodríguez, who was known as Samuel Robinsón during his exile.
2 Hugo Chávez, Aló Presidente Teórico No1, 11 June 2009.
Marta Harnecker, a Chilean Marxist, is among the most prominent analysts of the experience of social transformation in Latin America. She is the author of more than eighty books, all of which can be found online at www.rebelion.org. Among her recent publications is Hugo Chávez Frías: un hombre, un pueblo (2002), published in English by Monthly Review Press as Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Hugo Chávez Talks with Marta Harnecker (2005). The original article "El principal legado de Chávez: Construir con la gente una sociedad alternativa al capitalismo" was published by La Segunda on 6 March 2013.