Learning from the Makers of History: Bolshevism, Bolivarianism, and the Legacy of Hugo Chavez

This is a pre-publication version of an article published by the journal ‘America Latina XXI’. It was originally produced as a tribute to Hugo Chavez and a critical reflection on his reception outside Venezuela, on the occasion of his death.

I was in Argentina during the April 2002 coup in Venezuela, whilst masses of betrayed people struggled with the aftermath of the peso’s January 2002 collapse. Everyone around me knew that two countries, at opposite ends of the continent, were linked in a common struggle which would change the world. No-one doubted that the change would be for the better.

Returning to England was like flying back to the Stone Age. The coup had triggered a sustained outburst of that cultured scepticism which the well-to-do reserve for those moments when the poor make history. The liberal intelligentsia avidly retailed, as if they were dispatches from the frontline of the War for Civilization, the ravings of coup plotters who had conspired to overthrow a democratic government by force and murder its elected president. Otherwise progressive middle class Latin American earnestly tried to convince me that Chavez was ‘just another Caudillo’, whilst the British left offered pious lectures on class, the perils of third-worldism, and the distractions of krypto-Marxism.

The coup’s defeat left no room for doubt about the nature of the process, nor the direction in which is leadership was taking it. The Bolivarian constitution set out freedoms and rights that no dictatorship could possibly fulfil; when the people elected a government that intended to implement it, the ruling classes responded by mobilising the privileged middle classes to overthrow it. Chavez responded by showing he would risk his life rather than betray the people, and the people mobilised to defeat the coup. This was unmistakably a revolutionary process headed by a revolutionary leadership.

And as Luis Bilbao (2013) lucidly explained, Chavez breathed life into the historical understanding we find in the writings of great revolutionary leaders such as Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Fidel, Che, Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, and in the revolutions they led. So why was it so hard for the ‘left’ to support a clearly socialist process? Why do history’s writers, with so few exceptions, have such problems understanding its makers?

It took four years for left to catch up, and the liberal intelligentsia still offered little better than sophisticated lies. The ‘about.com’ entry for Chavez, written by an allegedly qualified man, is simply headed ‘Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s Firebrand Dictator’. This is a Disneyesque invention: why did no-one remove it from a site that claims to be a recognised source of accurate information?

This article was the first of many attempts to come to grips with the Hubris of the Western intelligentsia. I did not know it at the time but this hysterical and arrogant self-deception was nothing but a mild foretaste of what was to come.