It’s 25 years this week since Hugo Chávez – an inspiration for leftwingers like Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn – was elected president of Venezuela. Chávez may not be the person primarily responsible for his country’s descent into dictatorship, anarchy and humanitarian disaster (that would be his hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro) but the foundation was laid by his unrestrained populism.
That populism had two pillars: socialism and nationalism. Chávez claimed inspiration from Karl Marx and, particularly, from the Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar. During his 14 years in power, Chávez tried to combine these two influences to create a socially equal and sovereign Venezuela. He called his project ‘Bolivarian Socialism’. The problem? Marx absolutely hated Bolívar.
Marx wrote one essay about Bolívar, published in 1858 in the third volume of the New American Cyclopaedia. In it, Marx presents the Liberator not as a proto-socialist but as a mediocre general, a despot, and a racist.
Bolívar’s military prowess was central to his importance to Chávez – a former army officer who constantly tried to present himself as Bolívar reincarnate. As president, Chávez gave his international allies replicas of Bolívar’s sword. After his failed coup in 1992, he announced: ‘The authentic leader of this rebellion is General Simon Bolívar.’
Marx, however, disdained Bolívar’s generalship. He argued that if Bolívar had moved decisively in Venezuela in late 1819 ‘the Spaniards would have been crushed…but he preferred protracting the war for five years longer’. Of his campaign in 1820, Marx wrote that ‘notwithstanding his vastly superior forces, Bolívar contrived to accomplish nothing’. Of the liberation of modern-day Ecuador and southwest Colombia, he stated: ‘This campaign was nominally led by Bolívar and General Sucre, but the few successes of the corps were entirely owed to British officers such as Colonel Sands.’
Marx then harangued Bolívar for his dictatorial proclivities.