Venezuela: the left’s heart in a heartless world

The Western left’s bizarre love affair with the Bonapartist Hugo Chavez speaks volumes about its intellectual disarray and desperation.

For an insight into the collapsed standards, declining intellectual rigour and desperate opportunism of the modern Western left, look no further than its fawning over Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. In the past, much of the left - both the radical sections and even some of the stuffy Stalinist crowd - was highly critical of the Bonapartist antics of populist Latin American leaders. They critiqued the way these leaders mobilised the masses to give their narrow, bourgeois, largely state-orientated policies a gloss of legitimacy or the appearance of revolutionism. But now, so isolated is the Western left, so bereft is it of a domestic constituency or anything approaching a political plan, that it sees in Chavez’s twenty-first-century Bonapartism something ‘genuinely progressive’.

This week, Chavez won a fourth term as president of Venezuela. He did not repeat his landslide victory of 2006, instead winning a safe but not-especially-astounding 54 per cent of the vote (on a turnout of 81 per cent). His supporters among Western radicals immediately went into hyperbolic hyperdrive, talking about the ‘revolution’ that Chavez has led in Venezuela and commending him for ‘challenging imperial domination’. Chavez’s posturing against US influence in Latin America and his implementation of social-assistance programmes for the Venezuelan poor are variously described as ‘radical’, ‘progressive’ and part of his broader ‘profoundly revolutionary struggle’. He is compared to Simon Bolivar, the nineteenth-century political leader who liberated much of the Latin American continent from Spanish rule, or to Che Guevara, the more recent Argentine radical beloved of t-shirt sellers in hipster communities across the West.

Yet these accolades for Chavez tell us far more about the state of mind, and deep, existential needs, of the disarrayed left than they do about any revolution taking place in Venezuela. Because in truth, Chavez has far more in common with the populist style of the nationalist leadership pioneered in Latin America by Juan Peron, whom the left castigated for his exploitation of the masses, than he does with yesteryear’s revolutionaries. Juan Peron was an Argentine military leader who, after playing a role in the army’s 1943 seizing of power from the corrupt regime of Ramon Castillo, was elected president of Argentina in 1946, 1951 and briefly again in the 1970s. His rule - which came to be known as Peronism and was influential among populist left-wing leaders in Latin America - consisted of a combination of anti-Western actions, concessions to the working classes and the poor in the form of higher wages and trade union recognition, and populist demagogy. Through this process, Peron was able to build up an impressive mass base of support for his pursuit of nationalist capitalist development in Argentina.

Peron’s political approach was archetypal Bonapartism - the name given by Marxists to leaders who take and secure power when no single class is in a position to do so; leaders who try to use reformist measures to win the radical support of the more populous classes. That is, the Bonapartist style can emerge when the capitalist class is too weak to exercise power in its own name and when the working class is too immature or lacking in political leadership to do anything about it. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx describes how, following the defeat of the working class in the European revolutions of 1848, Louis Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon, seized power in France on the back of the lumpenproletariat (or what the decidedly un-PC Marx described as ‘the scum, offal, refuse of all classes’). At a time when the working class had been roundly beaten and much of the European bourgeoisie was, in Marx’s term, in a state of ‘ruin’, Louis Bonaparte was able to depict himself as being above the class struggle and to ride to power through populist appeals to an ‘indefinite, disintegrated mass’ - the poor, disaffected, lumpen. In a modern-era spin on such Bonapartism, Peron in 1940s Argentina built his political success on mobilising sections of the working classes and exploiting the backwardness of Argentina’s then largely new and fast-growing proletariat, creating a base upon which he could create a ‘New Argentina’ and pursue a nationalistic form of economic development.

Of course, Peron’s rule was not without substance. There was a strong sense of national independence under Peronism, a certain amount of redistribution of wealth, the state-assisted creation of trade unions, increased social welfare. However, in a signal of Peron’s fundamental remove from the classes he claimed to represent, when Argentina hit rough economic waters in the early 1950s, and went in search once more of foreign investment, the Peron regime was quite happy to force down the wages it had previously raised, attack trade unions, and crush the workers who went on strike in response to these developments. There followed a foreign-backed coup in 1955, the fleeing of Peron, and years of dictatorship.

Chavez’s Venezuela has many Peronist elements, except Chavez is an even more unconvincing leader of the workers than Peron was. Echoing Peronism, Chavez’s Venezuela is likewise built upon the populist mobilisation of large sections of the poor by a fairly narrow stratum of society that presents itself as being fundamentally above the old competing classes. Chavez’s rule is likewise underpinned by frequent posturing against external powers and foreign ‘neoliberalism’ (though the so-called imperialists Chavez faces are a very pale version of the ones Peron took a stand against in the immediate postwar period); it also pursues the redistribution of wealth to a certain extent, and has developed social-welfare programmes (though Chavez does not pursue meaningful capitalist economic development in the way Peron did); and Chavez’s regime is shot through with populist demagogy, where Chavez has proved himself far more adept at tapping into the passions and prejudices of certain sections of the public than he is at laying out a convincing radical political programme. Both Peronist Argentina and Chavez’s Venezuela saw huge growth in the state and state expenditure.

But there is one enormous difference between the Peronist periods of the past and the Chavez era today - and that is in the response of the Western left. Much of the left was stingingly critical of Peronism. In a 1958 essay titled ‘What is Peronism?’, published in American Socialist, the Polish-US communist Bert Cochran described Peronism as ‘essentially a pragmatic manoeuvring between social classes at home and between rival powers abroad, concocted into a pseudo-ideology by grandiloquent rhetoric and noisy demagogy’ (1). In the 1970s, a socialist essayist described how Peronism, far from being revolutionary, was ‘fundamentally reformist, emphasising harmony of interests between classes and the role of the state as the neutral mediator between capital and labour’; Peronism actually ‘prevented social conflict… from getting out of control’. Across the Western left, there were serious critiques of Peronism, whether devastating ones or simply disappointed ones; certainly there was very little naive talk of Peron leading a ‘profoundly revolutionary struggle’, as many Western radicals now claim about Peronite Chavez.

This points to a dramatic change in the Western left, to extraordinarily lowered horizons and a dearth of critical thinking among modern radical writers and activists. The Western left’s uncritical embrace of Chavez is driven first by its desperation to find some evidence, somewhere, that old-style left-wing rhetoric still has purchase. With left-wing ideals in disarray around the world, and with the Western left increasingly alienated from and disappointed by its allegedly apathetic domestic populations, left-wingers fantasise that Chavez’s Venezuela is keeping the socialist dream alive, offering ‘lessons to anyone interested in… new forms of socialist politics in the rest of the world’. Venezuela has become a kind of haven in a world that the left finds increasingly heartless, or just confusing. And secondly, the left’s enamourment of Chavez is informed by its increasingly uncritical attitude towards the state. For a left convinced that change is impossible without the leadership and favour of the state, which now views the state as the main agent of progress, Chavez’s state-orientated policies can seem exciting, even ‘revolutionary’.

In essence, then, there is a double self-deception in the Western left’s love affair with Chavez. It is deceiving itself about the reality of what is happening in Venezuela. And it is deceiving itself about, and intellectually distracting itself from, the profound crisis of radical thought that is widespread in the world today.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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Footnotes and references

(1) ‘What is Peronism?’, Bert Cochran, American Socialist, February 1958