In the months before he died I had begun to wonder whether the enthusiasm within the international left for the hero of Camden might have begun to subside. The reaction to his death has certainly disabused me of that notion. The enthusiasm seems to have been as strong as ever right until the end. In the circumstances, I draw your attention to a column by James Bloodworth for the important argument encapsulated in its title: 'These eulogies for Chavez give the Left a bad name'. Don't they just! James writes:
During the Cold War, the old argument we on the Left used to confront was that while the Communist regimes in the East had achieved a degree of social equality, they had done so with a heavy price attached – the loss of the most basic freedoms. Honest Western Communists would admit as much, and would say that they really viewed things like freedom of the press and the right to strike as a bourgeois irrelevance to the workers of Russia and Eastern Europe. Much more important to the toilers of the East was the fulfilment of material equality and the alleviation of extreme poverty.
Today's version of this sinister argument is phrased differently but its implications are not much better. How dare we in the West lecture those on a dollar or two a day about human rights? People in faraway lands are not worried about things like freedom of speech and the right to vote; they simply want food on the table, so the argument goes.
Yet even a short stay in Raul Castro's Cuba – Hugo Chavez's closest political ally and one of the few remaining states that still follows the failed model of state Socialism Chavez hoped to emulate - refutes the fallacy of redistribution without liberty. On that beleaguered island (which I have visited half a dozen times, before you ask), corruption is endemic and double-think is a way of life...
Under Chavez's rule in Venezuela, it is true, as his Western fans enjoy repeating, that wealth was redistributed and the living standards of the poorest were raised to an extent previously unknown. But that came at the cost of an emaciated judiciary, a terrified press and a compliant trade union movement. If there is anything Socialists should have learnt from the 20th century, it is this: leaders who promise prosperity at the expense of freedom rarely deliver either.
The apologists' theme that has popped up round and about over the last few days is that regrettable as were some of Chavez's anti-democratic misdemeanours, those of others have been as bad or worse. Why should anyone on the left be commending a leader on the grounds that there are equally bad or worse examples than his? What about a leader of the left who would be a better example? And a thoroughgoing democrat? The eulogies for Chavez in face of his evident shortcomings as a democrat are further testimony to the persistent failing of that part of the left that still hasn't learned from its own past: the failing of treating equality and/or anti-capitalism as more important than democratic rights and liberties. Fortunately, this part of the left isn't the whole of it. But what James says is true: they give the left a bad name.