Over the Christmas week, CapX is republishing its favourite pieces from the past year. This was first published on June 28.
“[Venezuela] is deep in crisis. It has the world’s highest inflation rate — 720 percent and rising. Its currency has plummeted to less than 1 percent of its official value, making it hard to import food. Hunger is endemic. Buying food at subsidised shops where price controls operate involves queuing for four hours, only on certain days, and sometimes still getting nothing. Medicines and sanitary products are scarce. Chronic power blackouts have seen factories close and public sector workers move to a two-day week. Growing numbers are emigrating, or depend on products sent by relatives abroad.”
This description of Venezuela’s ongoing economic meltdown is not from a Murdoch- or a Rothschild-owned source. It is from the Socialist Worker newspaper. If this is the most positive spin they can put on it, it means that the situation must be bad. Really, really bad.
Before it all gets chucked down the memory hole, let’s take a moment to remember that until just a few years ago, praising Venezuela’s experiment with socialism was extremely fashionable in the UK and other Western countries. This had begun in the mid-2000s, when Venezuela became a popular destination for political pilgrimages. As The Guardian reported at the time:
Meet the revolutionary tourists, a wave of backpackers, artists, academics and politicians on a mission to discover if President Hugo Chávez really is forging a radical alternative to neoliberalism and capitalism. From a trickle a few years ago there are now thousands… exploring a leftwing mecca which promises to build … “21st century socialism”.
One of those revolutionary tourists was Noam Chomsky, who, in 2009, summarised his impressions: “What’s so exciting about at last visiting Venezuela is that I can see how a better world is being created … The transformations that Venezuela is making toward the creation of another socio-economic model could have a global impact”.
Three years later, Owen Jones went on a pilgrimage to Caracas as well, and reported: “Venezuela is an inspiration to the world, it really does show that there is an alternative. I met so many people who told me how their lives had changed since the election of President Chávez”.
In The Independent, Jones argued that Chávez was “the first Venezuelan president to care about the poor … Under Chávez, the poor have become a political power that cannot be ignored … He has proved it is possible to lead a popular, progressive government that breaks with neo-liberal dogma.”
Seumas Milne also went to on a pilgrimage around the same time, and came back convinced that he had seen the future, reporting that Venezuela’s “success in bringing resources under public control offer lessons to anyone interested in … new forms of socialist politics in the rest of the world.… Venezuela and its Latin American allies have demonstrated that it’s no longer necessary to accept a failed economic model, as many social democrats in Europe still do.”
After Chávez’s re-election in October 2012, the General Secretary of Unite the Union, Len McCluskey, said: “We welcome this result which is a clear endorsement of Hugo Chávez’s progressive social policies. Venezuela shows that governments that put the needs of ordinary working people first can expect strong support at the ballot box … Europe might want to learn the obvious lessons from Venezuela”.
In the weeks and months following Chávez’s death in 2013, there was no shortage of voices which praised his political legacy. Among them were trade unionists including Bill Hayes, Dave Prentis and Frances O’Grady. Jon Tricket, the MP for Hemsworth, called Chávez “a titan of a man”.
Of course, one of Chávez’s foremost fans was the man who now leads the Labour Party. At a pro-Chavez rally in London, Jeremy Corbyn said: “Chavez … showed us that there is a different, and a better way of doing things. It’s called socialism”. In an article on his website (now deleted), he wrote: “Venezuela is seriously conquering poverty by emphatically rejecting … Neo Liberal policies … As with Cuba the threat to the USA by Venezuela is not military … It is far more insidious, a threat by example of what social justice can achieve.”
At a pro-Venezuela event in the UK, Diane Abbott opined: “[Chavez] showed the region that it was possible to do things differently … I feel particularly passionate about defending the revolution of Venezuela and the Chavez legacy.”
This was probably the zenith of Venezuela-mania among Western commentators. From then on, the country’s economic crisis became more acute, and the shortages of basic essentials became more severe. Venezuela was now regularly shaken by protests which often turned violent. Western Chavistas became more defensive, concentrating less on the revolution’s supposed achievements, and more on the alleged motives of its opponents at home and abroad. Owen Jones wrote a (now deleted) article for The Independent entitled “Socialism’s Critics Look at Venezuela and Say, ‘We Told You So’. But They Are Wrong”, in which he claimed that “those who relish using Venezuela’s troubles for political point-scoring have no interest in the truth”.
Seumas Milne wrote an article in which he claimed that Venezuelans who protest against shortages of food and medicines are either CIA-funded foreign spies and saboteurs, and/or members of the elites trying to restore their former privileges: “US-linked opposition leaders … launched a campaign to oust Maduro … [The] protests have all the hallmarks of an anti-democratic rebellion, shot through with class privilege and racism. … It’s hardly surprising in the circumstances that Maduro regards what’s been going on as Ukraine-style US-backed destabilisation … Evidence for the US subversion of Venezuela … is voluminous.”
If this sounds slightly paranoid, bear in mind that Seumas Milne also believes that the fall of the Berlin Wall was not the result of a popular uprising, but of a counter-revolution orchestrated from above, namely by “a group of people in power who saw that they stood to benefit from the restoration of capitalism”.
When the situation in Venezuela got even worse, the Western Left fell silent on Venezuela. It is as if the country had just dropped off the map. It is clear what the next step will be: we will soon hear post-hoc rationalisations explaining why Venezuela was never “really” socialist, and why it is a silly straw man to hold the failure of that experiment against the socialist Left. This process has already begun. Noam Chomsky now says he never described “Chavez’s state capitalist government as ‘socialist’ … It was quite remote from socialism. Private capitalism remained … Capitalists were free to undermine the economy in all sorts of ways, like massive export of capital.”
This has happened many times before. In the 1930s, hundreds of Western intellectuals flocked to Stalin’s Soviet Union, and came back praising it to the skies. A few years later, they decided that Soviet socialism was not “real” socialism, and crucially, that it had never been socialist in the first place. Then the same thing happened all over again in Cuba, in Mao’s China, in Enver Hoxha’s Albania, and many other places.
Socialists like to claim that “real” socialism has never been tried. There is a very simple reason for that: whenever a socialist experiment fails (as they invariably do), socialists, including those who have once endorsed the experiment in question, retroactively declare it “unreal”.