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Praise, especially when empty, is often a way of dismissing a revolutionary historical figure more than preserving his legacy. That is what Lenin said about Marx: by making Marx into an icon, people had castrated and corrupted his thought.
The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez has also fallen prey to this common practice that polishes a figure into shiny emptiness.
His great predecessor, Simón Bolívar, who led the independence struggle of Venezuela and much of the continent, called himself “the man of difficulties.” Indeed, how can there be greatness without difficulties? And again, how can there be difficulties without errors or at least imperfect solutions?
Chávez confronted incredible difficulties. The hegemony of neoliberalism was just one of them, but that itself was enough to make for a David-and-Golaith struggle. Faced with this formidable giant, Chávez first put in his sling Anthony Giddens’ Third Way (sic), later anti-imperialism, and even later socialism.
Miraculously Chávez caused the imperturbable neoliberal mountain to budge. In the effort, he brought along a group of countries and their leaders, ranging from Bolivia’s Evo Morales to Honduras’s Mel Zelaya. A few were close to his ideas, others merely fellow travelers, and still others simply opportunists.
A recent study by Amílcar Figueroa traces Hugo Chávez’s evolution: how he arrived at socialism as a necessary project, how he assimilated the critique of real socialism by István Mészáros, and how he learned from his own failed effort to decree socialism with the Constitutional Reform of 2007.
Figueroa’s essay also shows that, while Chávez may have come to see socialism as the way forward, in fact he advanced very little in the project of changing fundamental social relations in Venezuela.
Maintaining clarity in ideas, defending socialism and preaching its ideals (in a way that is absolutely necessary): Chávez did all this. Yet like his predecessor Bolívar, who died saying that he had merely “plowed the sea,” Chávez also left such important tasks as the unification of Latin America and the construction of Bolivarian socialism not only unfinished but barely begun.
Chávez was a military person. Pragmatic on most fronts, he thought about how to get things done. He seemed to have inexhaustible tenacity and endurance. To accompany him (in a country where chain of command is weak), he found people who obeyed. He did not particularly like criticism.
His idea was to establish a direct relationship with the people: the urban and rural masses, the common people, the poor. Chávez forged this link through an unending series of public events and television discourses and even by himself walking through the barrios and towns of Venezuela. By contrast, the people in his immediate surroundings – his cabinet and cadres – were merely accessory.
Due to mounting security concerns, which tended to isolate him, and also the inevitable drop in spontaneous mass enthusiasm that follows the first phase of a revolutionary struggle, Chávez’s link with the people grew weaker. His world increasingly centered around the chessboard of geopolitical problems and “normal politics.”
The onetime paratrooper turned out to be something of a genius at normal politics.
But a revolution is by definition not normal and needs an organizational mechanism that can direct its extraordinary dynamics and especially maintain the course during its inevitable ebb and flow. This kind of apparatus, whether it be an efficient party or some other institution of popular power, eluded the President’s grasp.
For this reason Chávez increasingly felt himself to be a voice in the wilderness, as his 2013 Golpe de Timón speech, in which he claimed that no one paid attention to his proposals, tragically showed.
Deng Xioaping once said that Mao had been 70 percent right and 30 percent wrong. This claim is extremely undialectical. Is the 30 percent that is wrong unrelated to the 70 percent that is right? Chávez was a leader who, in one way or another, became a victim of the very pragmatism that allowed him to advance so gloriously (“the 70 percent”).
Revolutionary historiography – more revolutionary than historical – is not simply a matter of saying what happened but rather of probing the unrealized, recovering unfulfilled projects. These are not only in the past but also, by way of our potentially resurrecting them, in the present.
Chávez, who died just one year ago, inherited the socialist project and made it his. Only by recognizing the unrealized nature of this project – the result of mistaken theory, practical errors, and some outright defeats – can we make it into something alive and not dead.
The project of socialism, like a phantasm, calls out to us precisely because it has not arrived at its destination. Had the project arrived to some Elysian Field, as in a recent animation that shows Chávez comfortably dwelling among other deceased luminaries, it would have very little of urgency to say to us.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.