Héctor Silva Michelena: “El socialismo es una idea antigua” / Gloria M. Bastidas

Héctor Silva Michelena: “Socialism is an ancient idea”

[Photo: Sandra Bracho, El Nacional]

A former Communist Party militant, inveterate bohemian, doctor in Social Sciences, economist and poet, Silva Michelena takes a stroll through those years when he burst in against the establishment and gives a critical glance of today’s political scene.

In the veins of Héctor Silva Michelena (economist, doctor in Social Sciences, university professor and poet) flows unimpeded the blood he inherited from his two philosophical-literary gods: Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Baudelaire. In order to understand this irreverent man – born in Caracas in 1931 and shaped by the Jesuits at the San Ignacio School; and education that his father, who was a petroleum worker, paid for at great expense – one first has to pry into his pantheon.

Only by invoking his heroes can one understand him. Nietzsche, who exerted an enormous influence on the existentialist writers and fell victim to madness at age 44, was the philosopher who yelled that heretical phrase: “God is dead.” And Baudelaire, the poet of dissolute life, the genius who caught syphilis and was put on trial for writing poems that clashed with morality and good manners, is a key figure in the dictionary of modern poetry.

For Silva Michelena there are idols that ended up having clay feet and who were shipwrecked, but those two, Nietzsche and Baudelaire, float untouched in his plasma.

Silva Michelena displays an ample culture. He can just as well impart a master class on the theory of value (even with equations, if he’s asked, since he is an economist and mathematician) as one on the origins of the Dadaist movement in Switzerland with the poet Tristan Tzara at the reigns. A movement that would later lead to surrealism which impacted this intellectual’s generation so much, whose gallery includes, in effect, many other names besides those two who are canonical to him. One of them, very important for understanding communist utopia and Chavismo’s genealogy: Karl Marx. But the author of Capital has ceased to be for him, as he was before, a deity. Of course, he admires him for his “fertile” thought, although in a less orthodox way than in the sixties, when he was a militant in Partido Comunista de Venezuela. With the collapse of the Berlin wall, he prefers to adhere to so-called “Critical Marxism”: no dogma or ideas set in stone.

– “Socialism is an ancient idea. It’s based on three key elements: an ideal, a program and a regime (the execution). The ideal has existed since a long time ago. In the 7th century before Christ, Hesiod was already talking about a Golden Age: a time in which man could fully satisfy his needs because there existed an abundance of goods. That plethora, on which creative leisure imposes itself above the slavery of work, is what communism also seeks.

“Who doesn’t want a better world? It’s an idea so powerful that it’s become irreversible. We agree on the ideal. But then comes the program, which contains the design for what will be done. And, in the case of communism, the program par excellence is The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx with the help of Engels and published in 1848. In it, they describe the evolution of capitalist societies, a model that would tend to exhaust itself and would be substituted by the dictatorship of the proletariat. That collides against the concept of liberal democracy and already contains a problem: a dictatorship, even if it’s of the proletariat, is a dictatorship.”

Notes on a collapse. The study habits the Jesuits inculcated in him are a trademark. As soon as he’s welcomed the journalist and photographer to his apartment in Colinas de Bello Monte, he says: “I was preparing myself for this interview until 2:00 in the morning.” It is touching to observe him as he pulls out from the bundle of files on his table the impeccable notes he has written the night before. Suddenly, he shows us a page inhabited by a diminutive script and enumerates the reasons why actually existing socialism collapsed: “One: the administrative apparatus eliminated competition among producers; one area would overproduce and another would underproduce, which is why sometimes sewing needles were abundant and bread was nowhere to be found; two: direct control of business was exerted by political units (intervention by the Party); and three: the lack of freedom and democracy. That is what’s called the total State. And we were headed in that direction, but the December 2007 referendum forced Chávez to turn on the brakes. Chavismo is a project that, as it tries to absorb these ideas, incurs in what Jean François Revel called the totalitarian temptation.”

The birds arrive to the apartment’s window box, drawn by the fruits his wife, Adicea Castillo, places there. They sing and peck while the economist’s words do a pirouette and extend through the mangroves of those convulsive sixties when he formed part of the anti-systemic literary group Tabla Redonda, founded in 1959 by Manuel Caballero, Rafael Cadenas, Jesús Sanoja Hernández, Ligia Olivieri, Darío Lancini, Arnaldo Acosta Bello, Jesús Enrique Guédez and Pepe Fernández-Doris, among others. Afterwards, he and his brother Ludovico joined the group. Those were also the years of the leftist group El Techo de la Ballena, which included Edmundo Aray, Adriano González León, Salvador Garmendia, Carlos Contramaestre, Caupolicán Ovalles, Ramón Palomares, Efraín Hurtado, Rodolfo Izaguirre, Daniel González, Juan Calzadilla, Francisco Pérez Perdomo and Perán Erminy. The predecessor to those two movements was Sardio, which was composed of, among others, Adriano González León, Guillermo Sucre, Elisa Lerner, Mario Matute Bravo, Héctor Malavé Mata, Luis García Morales, Carlos Gottberg, Rómulo Aranguibel y Gonzalo Castellanos.

The mistrust of the PCV. Silva Michelena continues to ride the time machine. “Our life was very close to that of hippies. Ludovico and I would drink a bottle of rum daily.” They drank, but the intellectual capital gain they generated drew everyone’s admiration. In fact, Silva Michelena was considered one of the most important scientific cadres of the Communist Party, though his licentious lifestyle created mistrust in the cell where he was active. When he published his first collection of poems, Arácnidas, he was suspended for three months from the PCV. The reason (so Baudelairean): he dedicated a few verses to the whores of Sabana Grande that scandalized the hard liners of the organization, who considered them to be of low ethical standards. Those poems were not at the service of revolution, something that went against the Zhdanov Doctrine, created by the Russian who was so important in the implementation of actually existing socialism and whom Silva Michelena compares, after a lament, to Francisco Sesto [Minister of Culture].

– “[Jorge] Giordiani [former Minister of Planning and Development], a red monk for whom the world hasn’t changed, exercised a great deal of influence over Chávez. He has the thinking of what Popper called closed societies, which is the dogmatic vision; nothing changes, everything is immutable. But when societies open up, one emerges from the crystal bell and permanent challenges arise. Reason is very important. Think of the Enlightenment: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot. Reason could handle everything. And Marx is part of that: the great certainties, the extraordinary certainties: there can be no doubt about anything. But reason can be used for good or evil. You can reason in a certain way for the implementation of slavery and in another to reject it. You can reason in one manner to democratize society and in another to get rid of democracy, which is what Chávez does. He is a victim of the belief in the superiority of socialism. He is committing a true archaism: there can’t exist an aggiornamiento, an updating, of something that was a spectacular failure. What’s left of Cuba? A poor society where rationing cards still exist. Chavismo inhabits the prehistory of the human spirit.”

Isn’t 21st Century Socialism democratic? The question makes the poet economist once again turn to his files, from where he pulls out an article published in Le Monde. And he lets loose the hemerographic arsenal. “Edgar Morin, a French sociologist, points out that we must return to the three questions Kant asked himself two centuries ago. One of them is, What am I allowed to expect? (which is the ideal). The other is, What can I know? (which is the program). And the third one is, What should I do? (the execution, the regime). Marx elaborated his thought on these cognitive bases. Morin then adds: “Today we know that the sciences contribute local certainties but that theories are scientific in the measure that they are refutable, that is, untrue.” And Marxism is not refutable. Because if you refute Marxism you’re expelled from the party and taken to a firing squad. Morin remembers that Marx was a determinist and believed he had uncovered the laws of the future. Morin says: “The Marxist conception of mankind is one dimensional and poor: neither the imaginary nor myth were part of human reality: the human being was a homo faber (the worker who makes), with no interiority, no complexities, a Promethean producer destined to defeat the gods and dominate the universe.” ”


Economic Fraud

Has Héctor Silva Michelena turned into a man without utopias? No, not at all. He still ciphers his hopes in what he calls societal utopia (a better world, but free, closer to market socialism) and in what he baptizes as a personal utopia: writing. In March he will publish a book of poems called Crepúsculo. And he wants to finish another text called Curiosidades éticas socioeconómicas [Ethical Socioeconomic Curiosities]. He took the name from Baudelaire, who wrote Aesthetic Curiosities. Another idea he has is to write an essay in which he will try to demonstrate that all economic theory is fraudulent because it adopts the guise of natural sciences when it inscribes itself within the social sciences.

“One can do a study of the body by means of a blood test and will know the measure of white and red globules. You can’t modify that reality. But reality is modified in the social sciences because ideology becomes a factor.” Then he mentions the case of Marx, who postulated the inevitable triumph of socialism. Afterwards, he refers to how Milton Friedman refutes the author of Capital. And he concludes by saying: neither socialism, nor neoliberalism. That is why the disciple of Baudelaire prefers to take refuge in poetry’s fallible kingdom. “There one can find truth within and that doesn’t bother anyone.”

{ Gloria M. Bastidas, El Nacional, 24 February 2008 }

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