[Oswaldo Barreto & Teodoro Petkoff, Caracas, 17 July 2007. Photo: Saúl Uzcátegui for Tal Cual]
A couple weeks ago I attended the presentation for Teodoro Petkoff’s new book, El socialismo irreal (Caracas: Editorial Alfa, 2007), at the Alejandría III bookstore in Chacaíto, Caracas. The book was presented by Petkoff’s friend and colleague at his newspaper Tal Cual, the sociologist and professor Oswaldo Barreto. Petkoff also spoke about El socialismo irreal [Unreal Socialism], which is a republication of two texts from the 1970s, Checoeslovakia, el socialismo como problema (1971) and Proceso a la izquierda (1976). These essays were very influential when they were first published and have been out of print for several years. They represent Petkoff’s effort to forge a theoretical path away from the armed insurrection he led in the 1960s, as well as his formal break with the Venezuelan communist party (PCV) after his repudiation of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. As Barreto and Petkoff both pointed out, the topic addressed in these essays, namely, the possibility of creating a space for democratic socialism, remains a vital issue in Venezuela, as the country endures a prolonged political labyrinth under Chavismo with no foreseeable resolution.
The small bookstore was packed for the event, yet another sign of Venezuela’s thriving literary world, with bookstores full of new publications, reading groups sprouting up, and presentations & readings taking place on a weekly basis. Among the poets, novelists, historians, journalists and political figures in attendance that night (that I noticed) were Elizabeth Burgos, Inés Quintero, Ibsen Martínez, Alberto Barrera Tyszka, Rafael Cadenas, Pompeyo Márquez, Manuel Caballero, Sergio Dahbar, Elías Pino Iturrieta, Mayé Primera Garces, Alonso Moleiro and Américo Martín. The large and enthusiastic audience reflects Petkoff’s ability to gather an astonishing array of writers around his small newspaper, which in seven years has become a crucial forum for critiques of Chavismo from the left and center. Petkoff’s daily editorials, along with the op-ed pieces of Tal Cual’s columnists, continue to offer insights on Venezuela’s convoluted political and cultural landscape. Although the Venezuelan government has already tried to silence Tal Cual, the newspaper remains a vibrant reference point for many Venezuelans on all sides of the political divide.
I’ve been a close reader of Barreto’s two Tal Cual columns, “Pórtico” and “Balanza de Palabra,” and I've been translating selections from them into English at this blog for several years now, so it was a pleasure to have the chance to hear him speak. Standing with Petkoff on a banister overlooking the audience, he read from a three-page essay with a slow cadence attuned to his rich and allusive prose style. He began with a comment citing Petkoff’s demand of his Tal Cual writers that their texts be succinct. He evoked a decades-long friendship with Petkoff, dating back to their clandestine efforts against the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in the 1950s and their militancy as members of the PCV and the guerrilla insurgency during the presidency of Rómulo Betancourt in the 1960s. Barreto spoke of these essays as crucial moments that signaled a shift away from armed combat for many Venezuelan communists, as well as a lucid critique of Soviet policy in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. For him, these two essays are now autonomous entities, free from their author and the period from which they sprouted. They now exist in this new edition to help create problems and solutions for readers, particularly for those of us from younger generations.
Without being nostalgic, Barreto described the utopian ideals that moved them in the 1950s and 60s and how those values underwent a gradual transformation that has yet to conclude. He finished his essay, read with a cadence and intonation that at times brought to mind declaimed poetry, with an anecdote about Petkoff’s friend Gabriel García Márquez. It concerned a Venezuelan graduate student who visited García Márquez in Barcelona, Spain to discuss her dissertation on his work. In response to her questions about his novels, García Márquez told her that his character Colonel Aureliano Buendía was a “son of a bitch” and that he didn’t really like him, that his characters weren’t always under his control. Barreto’s anecdote was a way to remind us of a text’s independence from its author, how our own words can shift and take on a life of their own.
In his Friday column later that week, Barreto addressed the book further, writing:
“ (...) In the end every book is always susceptible to new readings, even on the part of a single person, since, parodying the most famous of Heraclitus’s fragments and inverting it, we can be sure that no book presents itself twice in front of the same pair of eyes. Thus, today we can find in the pages of El socialismo irreal what we didn’t see back then or what we didn’t suspect until today might be hidden within them.
For example, we can read luminous observations about the fatal nexus between imposed socialism and dictatorial forms of government, or about the inevitable rise and expansion of enormous state bureaucracies to which the government adjudicates the task of building intended forms of socialist life that no one is seeking or desiring.
(...) What El socialismo irreal highlights with unquestionable rigor and depth, is fundamentally aligned with the relations that exist between ideas and the possibility of realizing them, or between thought and will. The imagined project is one thing and the possibility of its realization another. What Teodoro saw in his passionate analysis and what he has communicated to us about situations with no exit, the great failures to which we can be led by the desire to impose certain ideals where the material and spiritual conditions don’t exist for men to experience them as their own, well, of course this speaks to directly and eloquently to all of us Venezuelans today.” (“Actualidad de El socialismo real,” Tal Cual, 20 July 2007)
Petkoff’s comments began with an observation on the generational gap he sees in Venezuela, and that he hoped these two essays might serve as an entry point for younger people to study the debates surrounding socialism, a concept now being used for authoritarian purposes by the Venezuelan government. He mentioned the experience of his daughter, in attendance that night, who was born in Bulgaria (Petkoff is the son of Bulgarian immigrants to Venezuela). When she left Bulgaria in her teens she was forced to endure an excruciating and Kafkaesque series of interviews and bureaucratic travails in order to be issued a passport. For him, Kafkaesque is a word that describes much of what’s happening in Venezuela under Chavismo. He wondered if the word “socialism” could ever be recovered from the horrible uses it was given throughout the 20th century. Petkoff suggested that socialism would carry the weight of its past mistakes for a long time, making an exploration of its definition a painful and difficult process.
In the prologue to this new edition, he situates his two essays within the context of Venezuela’s political map and what he sees as a disappearance of the ideal of a humane socialism:
“El socialismo irreal speaks, then, of what could have been socialism with a human face which was tragically frustrated in Prague and vanished definitively from the historical horizon, once the vices we’ve addressed here were not able to be corrected – without, on the other hand, any pretense of originality, but with the will to reveal them completely, even if their nakedness might cause us pain and fear.” (8-9)
Petkoff’s introduction to the 1991 edition of Checoeslovakia, el socialismo como problema, included in this volume, addresses the danger of the authoritarian impulse in socialist experiments of the 20th century. He notes a continuity of themes leading from the Prague spring of 1968 to the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989. In his words, one finds the uncanny repetition of history that equates aspects of Prague and Moscow then to Caracas today:
“An autocratic political regime, but, above all, totalitarian, according to the Soviet model, inexorably leads to the isolation of leaders from their own people. The lack of democratic and plural institutions for deliberation makes a dialogue with the nation impossible. The leader only hears his own voice, reproduced in monochromatic parliaments, which gather a few days per year to approve, always unanimously, what the leaders--when not the leader--have decided. No feedback exists between government and nation. No institutional mediation exists between the masses and the heights of power which might create a canal that allows for the circulation of information in both directions. If we factor in the uniformity and control by the state of the means of communication, what is then achieved is the disarticulation of public opinion, which ceases to exist as an operative force of society. It becomes clandestine. At the same time, the regimentation of cultural life drowns the critical role that, in general, is usually played by intellectuals. With this situation the system loses one of its most important vaccines against sclerosis. Intellectuals then become either conformists or they “exile” themselves within their own country, or they abandon it. Or they invent the samizdat, which like a dark spinning top continues to feed the spirit that suddenly produces “springtime” explosions.” (30)
A week after the presentation of El socialismo irreal, the lawyer and analyst León Arismendi wrote about the evening for Tal Cual. He brought up the issue of generational conduits and history’s vicious repetitions.
“ (...) Teodoro’s brief words for this event couldn’t have been more heartrending and in them, as in Oswaldo’s, I can’t help noticing the existential drama of a generation that, to say it with one of Alfredo Padilla’s genial “self-critical” phrases, spent half a life fighting on behalf of communism and the other half, having realized the failure of that endeavor, toiling for a rectification.
It’s significant and seems to be the result of a fatality, that after long and torturous debates, after so many encounters and separations; after the majority of the Venezuelan left had broken ranks with the Soviet anachronisms and had understood that democracy and socialism should integrate into an inseparable juncture; after a great deal of intellectual and practical effort, we now see the rebirth of the totalitarian specter and its deeds, as if everything that had been said and done had fallen into an abyss.
The spokesmen for Chavismo, with their leader at the front, repeat the old communist discourse as though they were reinventing the wheel and they have all the intentions of imposing such a thing on Venezuelan society. All you have to do is listen to the young defenders of the proceso speaking to discover the source that inspires them. Even the tone of their voices sounds Cuban. Would it be too much to ask them to read El socialismo irreal?” (“El socialismo irreal,” Tal Cual, 23 July 2007)
I’ve just begun reading the book, so it will be a while before I can comment on it here. What remains indelible for me is the enthusiasm in the bookstore that evening, as people bought books, drank wine and talked. My father recognized many faces he hadn’t seen since his days as a student at UCV in the 1960s. People were laughing & smiling, unphased by the TV and radio cameras there to record the presentation. My father and I left the mall as the event was dwindling, walked through the trees and benches of Plaza Brión and went to eat arepas at a late-night café a few blocks away. Literary production and conversation as two modes of understanding an irremediably convoluted country.