27 March 2019

On Venezuela, Rutger Bregman is rewriting recent history

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Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian and left-wing activist, has gained something of a cult following in Britain. Bregman’s sales tactic of passing off conventional wisdom as bold and radical thinking fits perfectly with the mood of our times.

But not everybody is equally impressed. Bregman recently had a spat with Michael Portillo on the BBC’s This Week programme. Portillo pointed out that countries that had pursued pro-enterprise policies – such as China, and to a lesser extent, India – had made huge progress in lifting people out of poverty, while countries that had pursued policies closer to Bregman’s, such as Venezuela, had seen their economies collapse.

Portillo was being a bit disingenuous here. As far as I can tell, Bregman is not a socialist. Sure, he benefits from the current socialism hype, and he certainly knows how to pander to a socialist audience. But I doubt that Bregman himself would advocate Chavista-style policies.

And yet, if Portillo’s questioning was bad, Bregman’s reply was a lot worse. He could have just said “Sorry mate, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m not a socialist, so you can’t hold Venezuela against me.” Instead, Bregman went along with it, and not in a good way. he replied:

“This doesn’t work with my generation anymore, you know? I was born in 1988, the year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This old trick – it doesn’t work anymore.”

In jumping straight from Venezuela to the Berlin Wall, Bregman was casually lumping together Chavismo with the socialism of the old Eastern Bloc, thus treating Venezuela as if it were just a tropical, oil-rich version of East Germany or the Soviet Union. This is quite a rewriting of recent history.

Until a few years ago, large sections of the Western left – probably not Bregman himself, but certainly a lot of his fellow-travellers – were in the grip of Venezuelamania. To them, the main attraction of Venezuela was precisely the fact that it was not East Germany, that it was not the Soviet Union, it was not the Polish People’s Republic, and it was not the Romanian People’s Republic.

This time was supposed to be different. That was the whole point. Venezuelan socialism was supposed to be a completely novel type of socialism, which had nothing in common with all those earlier, failed attempts.

Look at the testimonies of erstwhile Venezuela fans, and you’ll find this-time-is-different rhetoric written all over it (see pp. 232-247 of my book, Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies).

It started with the popular slogan “Socialism of the 21st Century”. That phrase had originally been coined by Heinz Dieterich, a German-born sociologist, and a former Chávez advisor. As Dieterich (p. 219) explains:

“The term [socialism] comes with a lot of baggage […] If you use the term, it evokes the experience of the GDR and of the Soviet Union. If you leave it out, you exclude a lot of people whose heart still beats on the left. I wanted to illustrate the continuity of an alternative to the market economy, but I also want to make clear that it has nothing to do with the socialism of the 20th century. Hence ‘Socialism of the 21st Century’.”

In the mid-2000s, Chávez himself started to use that buzzphrase, in conjunction with an explicit repudiation of the socialism of the Soviet Union. In the words of El Comandante (p. 218):

“We have to re-invent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on co-operation […]

[W]e cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion [as in] the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism […] a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not […] the state ahead of everything.”

Chávez fans frequently emphasised the many ways in which Venezuela differed from the old Eastern Bloc. They were especially proud of the fact that there was no apparent conflict between socialist economics and political democracy. They also pointed out that the Chavez government, rather than just nationalising lots of big companies like the socialists of yore, was experimenting with lots of different models of social ownership, looking for alternatives to both private enterprise and conventional state-owned enterprises. And they were right. Chávez and Maduro never tried to imitate the former Soviet Union or any of its allies. They tried, really hard, to build something new.

And look how that turned out. Today, press releases from the Venezuelan government sound suspiciously like a copy of the Pravda from the 1930s, dripping with paranoia about imaginary saboteurs, wreckers, hoarders and speculators. Venezuela has become a police state, and with the recent closing of the borders, it is turning into a garrison state as well.

The conflict between socialism and individual liberty was not yet as visible during the good times, but the economic crisis has since fully come to the fore. The fact that the Chavista’s version of socialism ended up with such striking similarities to earlier versions, despite the fact that this is exactly what they tried to avoid, is an indication of the inevitability of those results.

In Bregman’s case, the reference to his birth year is a cop-out. If Bregman was born in 1988, he must have finished high school around the time Venezuelamania started, and he was in his mid-20s when it reached its zenith. He has no memories of the Cold War, but he must have memories of Venezuelamania.

Millennial socialists even younger than him, however, will have no such memories. For them, Venezuelamania will be something that happened in their teens, before they had any interest in politics. They will be able to tell themselves that Venezuela really was just a tropical Soviet Union, and that the Chavistas never tried to build anything other than the authoritarian socialism they ended up with.

As I show in Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies, this has happened before. Previous socialist experiments have gone through the same honeymoon period as Venezuela, during which they were widely and enthusiastically praised by Western intellectuals.

It started with the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and once that model had fallen out of fashion, every subsequent attempt to build socialism was always defined against previous ones. The claim is always that while previous attempts were a fraud, this time would be different. This current socialist project, the utopia du jour, is unlike all the others.

Until it turns out that it was not so different after all, at which point it inevitably falls out of fashion. And then a new generation of socialists grows up which has no active memory of honeymoon periods past. For them, the differences between previous socialist projects become blurry, and they all merge into one singe gigantic project labelled not-REAL-socialism.

The Soviet Union, Maoist China, North Korea, North Vietnam, Albania, Cambodia, Tanzania, Angola, Mozambique, all the Warsaw Pact countries – they all become just different subchapters in the book of SINO – socialism in name only. They all just misunderstood socialism. They never really tried it.

And now, Venezuela is becoming the latest addition to that long list of unlucky countries.

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Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.