If ever I have to live in a dictatorship, put me down for one of those right-wing set-ups. To toil under leftist autocracy would be too exhausting — you plant potatoes all day, get chased around by the secret police, then have to wade through articles in the Guardian explaining why you’re not experiencing true socialism.
It’s the standard response of Western radicals faced with the brutal truth about the regimes they fetishise. They will not be dissuaded by evidence that their ideology tends to result in mass immiseration and exciting opportunities in the garbage-scavenging economy. For no evidence is possible: when command economies go wrong, it turns out real socialists were never in command.
Venezuela is shaping up to be the next false dawn and soon its erstwhile champions will airily assure us that it too wasn’t run along genuine socialist lines. Incumbent president Nicolás Maduro is celebrating his victory in Sunday’s election in which he took Bertolt Brecht somewhat literally and dissolved the people’s parliament and elected another.
The 2015 election, which saw moderate parties wrest control of the National Assembly, was the first major reversal in power for Maduro. Since then he has been busy packing the courts, suspending regional elections, and intimidating the opposition. He has also overseen an economic implosion. Hugo Chávez was able to bankroll his socialist paradise with oil revenues. But when petroleum prices plummeted, so too did Venezuela’s ability to fund its expansive social welfare system and generous fuel subsidies. This has produced public unrest and growing hostility towards the regime amongst even its loyalest constituencies, including the poor and rural. The Chavista miracle is over.
Maduro’s new Constituent Assembly, which will replace the National Assembly, will be composed entirely of candidates nominated by his United Socialist Party. It will be empowered to rewrite the constitution to remove what precious checks and balances remain. The United States has branded the move ‘another step toward dictatorship’ and termed the Maduro junta ‘architects of authoritarianism’. Socialism — the ‘real’ variety or otherwise — having failed, the Venezuelan people will have no choice but to live with it for some time to come.
The unfolding crisis has prompted calls for Jeremy Corbyn and other former Chávez fan boys to acknowledge yet another failure of their worldview. The Labour leader hailed Chávez for ‘showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared’ and making ‘massive contributions to Venezuela [and] a very wide world’. Diane Abbott once declared that ‘Chavez shows another world is possible’. Owen Jones pronounced him ‘an icon for Venezuela’s long-suffering poor’ who ‘represented a break from years of corrupt regimes with often dire human rights records’. All this he achieved despite ‘an aggressively hostile media and bitter foreign critics’, Jones gushed.
In large part it was their shared anti-Americanism that brought Chávez and the Western far-left together. He was a plucky little Simón Bolívar for the 21st century, defying latter day imperialists and defending the independence of Latin America. Like them, he despised neoliberalism. (‘Neo’ is Greek for new and Leftist for ‘all forms of’.) It hardly mattered that Chávez, while undoubtedly giving the poor more of a hearing than most of his predecessors, was in truth a thug and a strongman. Those notorious right-wingers at Human Rights Watch said his regime was ‘characterised by a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees’.
Human rights monitors were deported and a judge who freed one of Chávez’s critics from arbitrary detention found herself summarily jailed then placed under house arrest. Commercial TV stations had their licences revoked and restrictions were placed on critical newspapers. When Globovisión, the last remaining independent broadcaster, covered a prison riot that was poorly handled by the government, it was fined millions of dollars for ‘promot[ing] hatred for political reasons that generated anxiety in the population’. After Globovisión’s owner accused Chávez of not respecting press freedoms, he was arrested for ‘disseminating false information and offending the president’. Even man’s best friend wasn’t safe from the megalomaniac dictator. When a soap opera mocked Chavez by naming a dog after him, his government had the show cancelled.
Asking Corbyn and his fellow-travellers to recant their cheerleading for the extinguishing of Venezuelan democracy is futile. They would not accept the premise, then they’d accuse you of being a CIA asset, and when every excuse had been exhausted they would invoke the not-real-socialism clause. The question they should be pressed on is this: If Chavismo is so progressive and egalitarian, why do they not support it for Britain? Why does Jeremy Corbyn prescribe full-blooded socialism for Venezuela but won’t do the same for Britain? The far-left has spent decades pointing to political miserablism inflicted on the world’s poor and prating that ‘another world is possible’ and yet now that they are in control of the Labour Party they seem pretty relaxed about the world we have. They are like Leninists lost on a gap year: Capitalism in one country, to the barricades everywhere else.
Corbyn and his ilk are not revolutionaries but revolution tourists. They find far-flung political struggles exotic and romantic; they wouldn’t like to live in Venezuela but it’s a sun-kissed break from the dreary managerialism of Britain. This is nothing more than the ‘cultural appropriation’ they denounce in its every other manifestation but what a thrilling form it takes, allowing absolute white boys from hipster London to join the Latin American proletariat — until they get bored and alight upon a new cause to patronise. They will never find ‘true socialism’ because they only want it for others, not themselves.