El Cinco de Julio (July 5) is Venezuelan Independence Day. It marks the day in 1811 when a congress of Venezuelan provinces declared Venezuela’s separation from the Spanish Crown. In doing so, Venezuela became the first Spanish American colony to declare independence. For most Venezuelans, this is a day to commemorate not only the initial signatories to the Declaration of Independence, but also the major figures in the broader fight for national liberation from Spanish rule. Chief amongst these is Simón Bolívar, popularly known as El Libertador.
Bolívar is lionised for bringing freedom to not only Venezuela, but also to Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama. So powerful are the connotations of liberation, pan-Americanism, and anti-colonial struggle around his name that the late Hugo Chávez readily described his own political movement as Bolivarianism and even changed his country’s official name to the ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ under the Constitution of 1999. Indeed, Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro were so keen to establish a continuity between Chavismo and Venezuela’s initial anti-colonial revolution that, in 2013, the Maduro Administration controversially added Chávez’s signature to a museum-exhibited copy of the 1811 Declaration of Independence.
It is disquieting that large sections of the international left valorise a movement that enthusiastically views itself as ‘Bolivarian’. Much of this disquiet stems from the political character of Bolívar himself. In December 1857 to January 1858, Marx wrote an extremely depreciating article on Bolívar for the New American Cyclopaedia, titled ‘Bolívar y Ponte’. To be clear, numerous historical details within the article are mistaken (including the subject’s full surname, which was in fact ‘Bolívar y Blanco’), probably because Marx was working from unreliable materials.
Nevertheless, as Hal Draper points out in his 1968 New Politics article ‘Karl Marx and Simon Bolívar’, Marx’s factual errors about Bolívar’s life do not negate Marx’s political evaluation.
Whilst his acerbic treatment of Bolívar’s military skills is somewhat overdrawn, Marx’s Cyclopaedia article consistently highlights the central problem of Bolívar’s position as an authoritarian, militaristic aristocrat leading a generally progressive movement for independence. The relevant theoretical lens through which Marx viewed Bolívar was Bonapartism. As Marx elaborated in such pieces as ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’ (1852) and ‘The Rule of the Praetorians’ (1858), Bonapartism is where a military regime assumes political control of the state during a stalemate in the class struggle. In such periods, the bourgeoisie loses much of its political power, but retains its social power, and its long-term interests enjoy the protection of the military regime.
Moreover, the state attains an unprecedented level of autonomy from civil society.
Marx repeatedly makes his characterisation of Bolívar as a Bonapartist explicit. For instance, in a letter to Engels dated 14 February 1858, Marx calls Bolívar ‘a veritable Soulouque’, which was a common sobriquet for Napoleon III. One could even say that the main theme of Marx’s Cyclopaedia article is the fundamental tension between Bolívar’s Bonapartism and the interests of the independence movement. On numerous occasions, Bolívar attempted to assert personal dictatorship in the face of attempts by the anti-colonial revolutionaries to establish democracy. In his 1812 Manifesto of Cartegena, written shortly before he took Caracas and openly assumed a dictatorial role, Bolívar described his compatriots as ‘not yet capable of exercising their legal rights’. Similarly, in his 1815 Letter from Jamaica, he asserts that the ‘radical democratic system’ established in the US would ‘bring ruin’ upon South Americans, who in Bolívar’s view lacked the ‘talents and virtues’ to make such a system feasible.
Bolívar became Dictator of Peru in 1824 and aspired to bring together a ‘Federation of the Andes’, with the different republics adopting his Bolivarian Constitution. Under this constitution, Censors would be elected for life, and Tribunes and Senators would be elected once, but their successors would be chosen by their respective chambers from candidates presented by citizens, as opposed to citizens being able to vote for the candidates themselves. The President would be named for life and appoint his own successor. Colombia and Peru both resisted this naked emulation of the Napoleonic consular government, but in August 1926 Bolívar imposed it upon Peru by force.
In short, whatever Bolívar’s importance as a military leader, his Bonapartist tendencies meant that the independence struggle could never meet the full extent of its liberationary potential. Significantly, several scholars with a pro-Bolívar perspective, such as Gerhard Masur, do not deny the more overtly despotic aspects of Bolívar’s politics. On the contrary, they often defend these despotic aspects on similar grounds to those Bolívar himself would invoke: dictatorship was ‘only possible solution’ in the face of potential ‘anarchy’ and the people first needed to be ‘made ready’ for self-rule.
This leads us to why we should be wary of how Bolivarianism is romanticised and of the role this romanticism plays in 21st century Latin American politics. First, characterising Bolívar as a ‘benevolent despot’ who needed to ‘train’ his backwards people for democratic government has uncomfortable echoes with the excuses made for authoritarian leaders in the Global South today. This is especially true of despots perceived as playing an ‘anti-imperial’ role against the United States.
As Hal Draper put it in his aforementioned 1968 article, ‘people do not become “trained” for democracy nor do they “mature” except by their own fight for democracy, against the power that tells them it is “training” them – and against the intellectual servitors who apologize with these arguments’. If a figure or organisation spearheading a struggle against foreign imperialism is actively hostile to the labour movement and suppresses the workers’ ability to organise themselves democratically, then supporting that figure or organisation betrays our overarching objective of emancipating the working class around the world.
Indeed, lending such support falls into a form of Orientalist thinking, treating the pro-democratic, pro-worker, and pro-liberation criticisms we would make of political movements in the Global North as essentially inapplicable to political movements in the Global South. This is why, in his 1929 essay on the ‘Anti-Imperialist Viewpoint’, Peruvian revolutionary José Carlos Mariátegui was correct to warn against raising anti-imperialism ‘to the level of a program, a political attitude, a movement that is valid in and of itself and that leads spontaneously to socialism, to the social revolution’.
Second, members and supporters of Workers’ Liberty have long characterised Chavismo as Bonapartist because of how central the civilian-military alliance was to Chávez’s political project in Venezuela. In addition to how Chávez himself was an army officer, he placed many military personnel in civilian positions of government. Although Maduro’s background was in the trade union section of the Chavista civilian-military alliance, the militarisation of Venezuelan politics has continued under his Presidency. According to one estimate, by August 2017, 11 of the 23 state governors in Venezuela were current or retired military officers, as were 11 heads of the 30 ministries. Many of the famous social welfare programmes or ‘missions’ that Chávez established and funded with oil revenue are largely run by the armed forces.
In short, for all the rhetoric of ‘21st century socialism’, like that of Chávez, Maduro’s regime is entirely unaccountable to the workers it claims to represent, with the Venezuelan military administering and stabilising the state. Whatever welfarist goals they might have achieved in office, like Bolívar before them, Chávez and Maduro have stifled the more radical and progressive potential of the social movement they spearheaded, and this stifling occurred in large part because of their Bonapartist tendencies.
To summarise, in failing to take heed of the sharp criticisms Marx made of Bolívar’s anti-democratic beliefs and actions, even when Bolívar fought as part of a broadly progressive struggle against foreign rule, we run a serious risk of failing to oppose the anti-democratic beliefs and actions of modern ‘benevolent despots’ resisting imperialism or colonialism.
This includes the figures proudly leading the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ in Venezuela today.