Steve Ellner

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Steve Ellner
Photo in Australia 2011.jpg
Steve Ellner, July 2011
Born (1946-12-21) December 21, 1946 (age 73)
New York City
OccupationProfessor, historian

Steve Ellner (born December 21, 1946) has taught economic history and political science at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela since 1977. He is the author of numerous books and journal articles on Venezuelan history and politics, specifically in the area of political parties and organized labor. In addition, Ellner was a frequent contributor to Commonweal magazine beginning in the 1980s and more recently In These Times and NACLA Report on the Americas and has written op-ed articles in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. He frequently lectures on Venezuelan and Latin American political developments in the U.S. and elsewhere. Nearly all his academic works have been translated and published in Spanish.

Early life[edit]

Ellner was born in New York City where his paternal grandfather and grandmother arrived from Austria and Finland respectively. His grandfather, Joseph Ellner, was a writer and editor of The Gipsy Patteran.[1] In 1954, Ellner’s family moved to Connecticut.

Throughout his university education, Ellner majored in Latin American history. He received his BA at Goddard College in Vermont, his MA at Southern Connecticut State University and his PhD at the University of New Mexico, where his advisor was the prominent historian Edwin Lieuwen. In the 1960s, Ellner actively participated in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and later the American Independent Movement (AIM) in New Haven, Connecticut and the United Farm Workers boycott committee in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Ellner is married to Carmen Hercilia Sánchez and has two children.

Academic career[edit]

In addition to being a full-time professor at the UDO, Ellner has been a visiting professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (1994-2001), St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY (2001), Georgetown University (2004), Duke University (2005), Universidad de Buenos Aires (2010), the Australian National University (2013) and Tulane University (2015), and has taught at the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University (2011) and Johns Hopkins University (2012). Ellner is a participating editor of ‘‘Latin American Perspectives’’ and a member of the advisory board of ‘‘Science & Society’’.


Ellner centered his research on the internal currents of political parties and the labor movement that often gave rise to schisms in subsequent decades. In his dissertation and subsequent articles, he traced the left-leaning factions within the social democratic Democratic Action party (AD) in the 1940s that were the seeds of splits in the 1960s giving rise to the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR), the People's Electoral Movement (Venezuela) and internal blocs in succeeding decades.[2] Similarly, his Venezuela’s Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Innovative Politics demonstrates that the most avid and committed supporters of the armed struggle in the 1960s ended up breaking with the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) to form the Movement for Socialism (MAS) in 1971 and other parties.[3] Ellner concludes that internal party tensions prior to the era of neoliberalism in the 1990s went beyond personality clashes and personal ambitions and had political and even ideological implications. This thesis runs counter to widely held assertions reflected in scholarly writing that political disputes within and between establishment parties in Venezuela during those years were largely devoid of issues of substance.[4]

In several works beginning in 1989,[5] Ellner employed the concept of “Venezuelan exceptionalism” to describe what he considered to be an exaggerated view of the attractiveness of the nation’s liberal democracy since the outset of the modern democratic period in 1958.[6] Ellner claimed that Venezuela’s status as an oil exporter and its democratic stability convinced many scholars and Venezuelans in general that the nation was not susceptible to the military coups and political and social disorders that plagued its Latin American neighbors in the 1960s and 1970s.[7] Ellner argued that Venezuela’s relatively high degree of social mobility did not necessarily reduce levels of social tension and conflict.[8] He also contended that the depiction of Venezuela as a “model” or “showcase” democracy overlooked alleged violations of democratic norms and human rights during the post-1958 period.[9] Nevertheless, unlike Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and many of his followers,[10] Ellner pointed to certain advances in the area of national development and social reforms, which according to him were reversed as a result of the implementation of neoliberal policies after 1989.[11] Other writers in the 1990s also analyzed “Venezuelan exceptionalism” from distinct perspectives.[12][13]

Following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, Ellner specialized in the Chavista government and movement. In his Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, Ellner draws on the thesis of British historian E.P. Thompson[14] that the banners of political struggles defeated at a given historical moment often resurface many years later in revised form.[15] Ellner traces struggles in Venezuela from the colonial period to the present and argues that grasping the importance of these experiences is essential in order to understand the Chávez phenomenon.[16] Previously, Ellner had argued that the first half of the twentieth century was characterized by an important degree of historical continuity in spite of the major regime changes that took place during the period.[17]

Just as he highlighted issues of substance in his analysis of party factionalism in Venezuela, Ellner argued that concrete socio-economic policies, more than Chávez’s style, accounted for the political tensions that led to the coup of April 2002.[18] In the concluding chapter of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics, Ellner wrote: “The cause-and-effect relationship between popular and nationalist measures of an economic nature, on the one hand, and the… reaction of privileged sectors, on the other hand, was anything but subtle.”[19][20][21]

Another thesis in his works on the presidencies of Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro concerns the challenges facing the government due to conflicting demands, interests and visions of Chavistas of different class backgrounds.[22] Specifically, Ellner points to three social groups with a following within the Chavista movement: the organized working class, the middle class and the “marginalized and semi-marginalized sectors” consisting of members of the informal economy, workers in firms with less than about ten employees and much of the rural work force.[22][23] Ellner suggests that the establishment of these links, while understandable from political and economic viewpoints, is conducive to unethical conduct.[24]

In stressing the importance of the internal diversity of a socialist movement that rejects the orthodox Marxist notion of the primacy of the proletariat, Ellner is admittedly influenced by the theories of Ernesto Laclau,[25] who has been referred to as a “post Marxist.”[26] In his edited Latin America’s Radical Left, Ellner and other authors examine the complexity and heterogeneity of the twenty-first century Latin American left in power throughout the continent.[27]

Ellner goes on to argue that issues regarding the state in capitalist societies raised in the debate between Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband in Europe in the early 1970s[28] shed light on the relationship between the state and social classes in Venezuela and the predicaments facing Chavista governments. Three issues in particular stand out, namely whether the bourgeoisie (or sectors of it) displays a sense of “class-consciousness”; the viability of tactical and strategic alliances between the left and groups linked to the capitalist structure; and whether democratic socialism is to be achieved through stages, abrupt revolutionary changes, or ongoing state radicalization over a period of time. According to Ellner, Poulantzas’s concept of the state as a “strategic battlefield” [29] lends itself to the strategy of the gradual radicalization of the state, which was advocated by some who were close to Chávez and Maduro and which was embodied in the term “process of change” (‘‘proceso de cambio’’).

Awards and honors[edit]

“University Academic Productivity Prize” in the area of social sciences (first place), granted by the university research commissions (CDCHT) of the National Council of Universities in Venezuela, 2004.


  • Los partidos políticos y su disputa por el control del movimiento sindical en Venezuela, 1936-1948 (Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, 1980).
  • The Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation and the Debate over Government Policy in Basic Industry (University of Glasgow, 1987).
  • Venezuela's Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Electoral Politics (Duke University, 1988). ISBN 0-8223-0808-8
  • Generational Identification and Political Fragmentation in Venezuelan Politics in the Late 1960s (University of Akron-Allegheny, 1989).
  • Organized Labor in Venezuela, 1958-1991: Behavior and Concerns in a Democratic Setting (Scholarly Resources, 1993). ISBN 0-8420-2443-3
  • The Latin American Left: From the Fall of Allende to Perestroika, co-editor with Barry Carr (Westview, 1993). ISBN 0-8133-1200-0
  • Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict, co-editor with Daniel Hellinger (Lynne Rienner, 2003). ISBN 1-58826-108-5
  • ‘‘La política venezolana en la época de Chávez: clases, polarización y conflicto’’, co-editor con Daniel Hellinger (Nueva Sociedad, 2003). ISBN 980317200X
  • Neoliberalismo y Anti-Neoliberalismo en América Latina: El debate sobre estrategias. (Editorial Tropykos, 2006). ISBN 980-325-302-6
  • Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an “Exceptional” Democracy,” co-editor with Miguel Tinker Salas (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007). ISBN 978-0-7425-5455-9
  • Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon (Lynne Rienner, 2008). ISBN 978-1-58826-560-9
  • El fenomeno Chávez: sus orígenes y su impacto (Editorial Tropykos, 2011). ISBN 978-980-724-837-2. Second edition: CELARG, 2014. ISBN 978-980-399-052-7
  • Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century, editor (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). ISBN 978-1-4422-2949-5


  1. ^ Joseph Ellner (ed.), The Gipsy Patteran. London, 1926.
  2. ^ Ellner, The Venezuelan Left in the Era of the Popular Front, 1936-45.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 11, no. 1 (May 1979), pp. 183-184.
  3. ^ Ellner, Venezuela's Movimiento al Socialismo: From Guerrilla Defeat to Electoral Politics. Durham, NC, 1988, pp. 43-49.
  4. ^ Michael Coppedge, Strong Parties and Lame Ducks: Presidential Partyarchy and Factionalism in Venezuela. Stanford, CA, 1994. ISBN 0-8047-2278-1
  5. ^ Ellner, “Venezuela: No Exception.” NACLA: Report on the Americas, vol. 23, no. 1 (May 1989), pp. 8-10.
  6. ^ Ellner, Organized Labor in Venezuela, 1958-1991: Behavior and Concerns in a Democratic Setting. Wilmington, DE, 1993, pp. 86-91.
  7. ^ David Smilde, “Introduction,” in Smilde and Daniel Hellinger (eds.) Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez. Durham, NC, 2011, pp. 3-4. ISBN 978-0-8223-5041-5.
  8. ^ Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics: Class, Conflict and the Chávez Phenomenon, Boulder, CO, 2008, pp. 7-9.
  9. ^ Ellner and Miguel Tinker Salas, “The Venezuelan Exceptionalism Thesis: Separating Myth and Reality,” in Ellner and Tinker Salas (eds.), Venezuela: Hugo Chávez and the Decline of an “Exceptional Democracy.” Lanham, MD, 2007, pp. 8-10.
  10. ^ Richard Gott, In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chávez and the Transformation of Venezuela. London, 2000, pp. 40-41. ISBN 1-85984-775-7
  11. ^ Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics…, pp. 98-99.
  12. ^ Daniel H. Levine, “Goodbye to Venezuelan Exceptionalism.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, vol. 36, no. 4 (Winter, 1994), pp. 145-182.
  13. ^ Terry Lynn Karl, The Paradox of Plenty: Oil Booms and Petro-States. Berkeley, CA, 1997. ISBN 0-520-07168-9.
  14. ^ E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class. New York, Vintage Books, 1966. ISBN 978-0394703220
  15. ^ Ellner,Rethinking Venezuelan Politics…, p. 223.
  16. ^ Kim Scipes, Review of Rethinking Venezuelan Politics. MRZINE (Monthly Review), August 17, 2008.
  17. ^ Ellner, “Venezuelan Revisionist Political History, 1908-1958: New Motives and Criteria for Analyzing the Past.” Latin American Research Review, vol. 30, no. 2, 1995.
  18. ^ Jonathan Di John, From Windfall to Curse? Oil and Industrialization in Venezuela, 1920 to the Present. University Park, PA, 2009, p. 127. ISBN 978-0-271-03553-6.
  19. ^ Ellner, Rethinking Venezuelan Politics…, p. 216.
  20. ^ Sujatha Fernandes, Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela. Durham NC, 2010, p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8223-4677-7.
  21. ^ George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. Durham N.C., 2013, pp. 180-181. ISBN 978-0-8223-5439-0.
  22. ^ a b Jeffery R. Webber, “Where is Venezuela Going.” Against the Current, no. 144 (January–February 2010).
  23. ^ Nicolas Kozloff, Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. New York, 2006, p. 70. ISBN 978-1-4039-8409-8.
  24. ^ Ellner, “Venezuela: Chavistas Debate the Pace of Change.” NACLA: Report on the Americas, vol 47, no. 1 (Spring 2014), p. 9.
  25. ^ Ellner, “Revolutionary and Non-Revolutionary Paths of Radical Populism: Directions of the Chavista Movement in Venezuela.” Science & Society, vol. 69, no. 2 (April 2005)
  26. ^ Philip Goldstein, Post-Marxist Theory: An Introduction. Albany, New York, 2005, pp. 53-65. ISBN 079146301X
  27. ^ Roger Burbach, "The Radical Left's Turbulent Transitions: An Overview," in Ellner (editor),Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, MD, 2014, pp. 38-40. ISBN 978-1-4422-2949-5
  28. ^ Ralph Miliband, “Poulantzas and the Capitalist State. ‘‘New Left Review’’, November–December 1973.
  29. ^ Nicos Poulantzas, ‘‘State, Power, Socialism’’. London: New Left Books, 1978, p. 141

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