Chávez: death of a charismatic Bonaparte

March 6, 2013 at 12:00 am (celebrity, Jim D, Latin America, Marxism, populism, RIP, trotskyism)

Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, dies in Caracas

Death comes 21 months after it was revealed he had a tumour: he will be given a state funeral in the capital of Venezuela.

Guardian obit here.

“By Bonapartism we mean a regime in which the economically dominant class, having the qualities necessary for democratic methods of government, finds itself compelled to tolerate – in order to preserve its possessions – the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it, of a crowned ‘saviour’. This kind of situation is created in periods when the class contradictions have become particularly acute; the aim of Bonapartism is to prevent explosions” – Leon Trotsky, Again on the question of Bonapartism, March 1935, in Writings 1934-35

“I said this before becoming president… Venezuela is a kind of a bomb. We are going to begin to deactivate the mechanism of that bomb. And today, it’s not that it is totally deactivated, but I am sure that it is much less likely that this bomb explode today” Hugo Chávez to Venezuelan and US business representatives, 6 July 2005

Bonapartism in Venezuela

Adapted by Jim Denham from a 2005 article by Paul Hampton

How do Marxists analyse a regime like the one established by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, where capitalism is still the dominant mode of production but the old bourgeois parties no longer control the state?

Marxists believe that the essence of capitalist society is the extraction of surplus labour from the waged working class. The working class produces the wealth and the capitalists expropriate profit from workers, because these bosses own and control the means of production (the businesses, the factories and mines — the basic industry).

But this is not sufficient to explain the role of the state or the character of politics. At a fundamental level, the state is the executive committee for managing the affairs of the whole bourgeoisie, as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto.

But they also understood that under capitalism, politics and economics were not fused in the same way as in many pre-capitalist societies — such as feudalism. On the contrary, they argued that the state had a “semblance of independence” in relation to the contending classes it stood over. They came to the conclusion that it was not necessary for the bourgeoisie to govern politically in order to rule socially.

They also understood that in periods of crisis, where the class struggle had reached a stalemate — it was possible for a military regime — “the rule of the praetorians” — often led by a strongman, to rule in the long term interests of the capitalist system while remaining above some sections of capital and the labour movement.

The classic form of this kind of regime analysed by Marx and Engels was the rule of Louis Napoléon Bonaparte in France (1852-70). In February 1848 king Louis Philippe was disposed. In June 1848 the working class movement was viciously put down. But the bourgeois parties were unable to consolidate their rule. Louis Napoléon was elected president of the new republic in December 1848, but the constitution allowed the president only one term. After unsuccessfully attempting to change the law, Bonaparte staged a coup in December 1852.

He established a military regime that concentrated power in its own hands at the expense of parliament and intervened in finance and industry to hothouse capitalist development while repressing the workers’ movement. Bonaparte organised his own forces, “the Society of the 10 December”, and appealed directly to peasants and workers. In the Eighteenth Brumaire Louis Bonaparte (1852) Marx brilliantly outlined this form of rule.

For Marx and Engels Bonapartism was not simply a term of abuse or derision. It characterised the tendencies and direction of a peculiar regime and armed the working class with a clear, critical attitude towards it. Many radicals and socialists at the time, such as Proudhon wrote admiringly about Louis Napoléon, while the regime cultivated workers through construction projects and an imperial foreign policy. Marx and Engels remained unremittingly critical.

They also extended their analysis of Bonapartism to other societies – for example to Bismarck in Germany and to Simon Bolívar (see Solidarity 3/54, 24 June 2004: ).

During the 1930s the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky further developed this conception of Bonapartism, applying it to China, Germany and France. But Trotsky’s most significant extension of Bonapartism was to Mexico. His analysis is particularly pertinent to our understanding of Venezuela today.


Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998 as the old mode of rule was in an advanced state of decomposition. After 1958 Venezuela had a stable, formally democratic state that was in fact a polyarchy of two parties, AD and COPEI. This regime — known as puntofijismo — was maintained by the huge rents derived from the country’s oil industry.

This system broke down after 1983 and the country went through two decades of economic contraction. The response of the two ruling parties was neoliberalism, which only made the situation worse. It also undermined the legitimacy of their mode of rule.

Chávez was elected because he pledged to end the old political system — through holding a constituent assembly and recasting the state. He summed up his role soon after coming to power: “Venezuela is a ticking time bomb and I’m here to defuse it.”

Chávez replaced the old regime with his own distinctive form of Bonapartist rule.

Essential to any Bonapartist regime is the role of the army. Chávez was a career soldier and this conditions his outlook and politics. This is not simply because he tried to seize power in 1992 through a military coup. It is widely recognised that Chávez militarised politics in Venezuela.

Chávezs made it clear in interviews with sympathetic journalists such as Marta Harnecker and the hero-worshipping Richard Gott  that a reconstructed “civilian-military alliance” was the key to his politics. His organisation, the MBR-200, formed in the early 1980s, was made up largely of middle level officers, with others in a secondary role.

The armed forces have been central from the beginning of Chávez’s rule. In the Constituent Assembly in 1999, 26 out of 131 delegates were military officers, all from Chávez’s “Patriotic Pole” slate. There are a large number of military personnel in civilian positions. One estimate has 800 senior government jobs and nine state governors (out of 23) held by officers.

The new constitution substantially increased the role of the army in politics and society. It gives the army an increased role in maintaining “internal order” and demands it be “an active participant in national development”.

What this meant in practice was demonstrated by the various “Plans”. Plan Pais, inaugurated in February 1999, involved tens of thousands of military personnel from all four forces in tackling problems in education, health and infrastructure.

Similarly Plan Bolívar, a scheme launched in 2000, involved massive funds for public works channelled through the army to repair schools and hospitals, set up medical clinics, clean up projects and even low cost food distribution.

The National Plan for Citizen Security, instituted in May 1999, gave the National Guard — part of the armed forces — responsibility for crime — and effective control of the police.

Giving the military a public role did not end corruption. Millions of dollars were paid to non-existent companies and allegations of human rights abuses by the DISIP security service followed the floods in 1999. And although the army has not yet been used to suppress genuine workers’ struggles, it has played a repressive role against indigenous people and environmentalists fighting plans to construct power lines into Brazil.

The relationship between Chávez and the armed forces was also demonstrated by the coup in April 2002. Only two senior officers, and only 200 other officers out of 8,000 (plus some retired personnel) joined the attempt to overthrow him. And after the coup, Chávez was able to purge those elements hostile to his rule, by retiring generals and admirals.

Hypertrophic executive 

The inflated status of the executive is also a sign of Chávez’s Bonapartism. As Venezuelan-based academic Steve Ellner put it, the new Constitution created a “powerful executive whose authority is unchecked by other state institutions”.

For example the Constitution extends the presidential term from five to six years and allows for immediate re-election, which was previously barred. The president appoints his own vice-president and has no prime minister. He has sole power over military promotions and a significant say in the appointment of judges. For example earlier this year Chávez appointed 12 extra Supreme Court judges, giving him a majority in the court.

Gregory Wilpert, editor of the Venezuelanalysis website and generally sympathetic to Chávez, acknowledges this facet of his regime. He wrote: “Another area of criticism of the 1999 constitution is that it has centralized presidential power even more than the already somewhat presidentialist constitution of 1961. The increased presidential powers include the ability to dissolve the National Assembly, following three votes of non-confidence by two thirds of the National Assembly, declare a state of emergency, freely name ministers and their area of responsibility, the extension of the president’s term from five to six years, and allowing for an immediate consecutive re-election.” (Venezuela’s New Constitution 2003)

After coming to power, Chavez pursued generally conservative economic policies, while increasing the role of the state in the economy.

The key to his rule was the re-establishment of control over the state-owned oil company PDVSA after the defeat of the December 2002-January 2003 lockout. PDVSA says it will make $70 billion this year [2005], providing $10 billion to the treasury – or over one-third (35%) of the federal budget. The role of the state in economic life has increased dramatically since Chávez came to power. Government spending has grown from 19% of GDP to 31% last year.

Chávez continued to honour contracts with US and other international oil companies. Venezuela is the United States’ leading foreign supplier of crude oil. According to Fortune magazine, in the first half of 2005, it supplied one-seventh of the US’s imported oil.

And Chávez continued to encourage foreign investment. He told Fortune that; “foreign corporations should rest assured and have faith in our laws and in our government. We’re doing very good business with them. Almost all the oil companies in the world are in Venezuela — Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Conoco-Phillips, Petrobras, Statoil, Shell.” (3 October 2005)

The windfall from higher oil prices gave Chávez the funds to spend the oil money on social programmes. These reforms have benefited some of the poorest sections of Venezuelan society – but also helped cement his rule in the manner of US Tammany Hall-style politics.

Relations with civil society

Chávez talked about the “sovereignty” of the people as the “protagonists” in his regime and about “participatory democracy”. His attack on the old system went as far as repudiating the old parties and other social organisations such as the CTV trade union federation that were integrated into the old regime.

The Chavistas claim a special relationship with social movements, and the constitution opens some opportunities for these movements and ad hoc organisations to participate in state structures.

Yet his own party, the Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR) is hardly a model of democracy. Even MVR members have complained that sections of the old elite that have been elected on the MVR slate, and that the party has little internal democracy or internal life.

In 2001, Chávez proposed re-establishing the MBR-200 and revived the idea of Bolivarian circles, local cells first organised by the MBR-200 in 1994. These groups, with government backing and pledged to the constitution, grew rapidly at the time of the coups. They have become the backbone of his social welfare programmes, rather independent organisations with much distance from his regime.

Chávez supporters in the unions also pushed for a new union federation to replace the CTV. The formation of the UNT in 2003, after the CTV was discredited by its involvement in the coup attempts was certainly welcomed by the government. However the UNT is not simply an instrument of the regime — though it faces real pressures of co-option (see article in the next Solidarity).

In classic Bonapartist fashion, Chávez appealed over the heads of organisations, directly to the masses of people — using for example his weekly TV show, Alo Presidente. However he did not managed to fully institutionalise his relationship to civil society or to the mass of ordinary Venezuelans.

There are real dangers for the UNT and other social movements faced with the Bonapartist regime. The first danger is the readiness to resort to repression in the face of a progressive struggle. The other danger is co-option — incorporation into the structures of the regime, providing it with a radical veneer — but at the cost of destroying the potential of an independent movement.

For all the rhetoric against neoliberalism and about “twenty first century socialism”, Chávez established a Bonapartist form of rule and set about sinking roots in Venezuelan society. This process is unfinished — unlike similar Latin American populists Chávez did not have fully institutionalised party or structures such as dependent trade unions to prop up his role.

But he continued to rule in favour of capital — mainly Venezuelan national capital without being completely hostile to multinational capital. This must be the starting point for developing a working class assessment of this charismatic populist and the regime he established.


  1. Vishvesh said,

    I have to respect this man. The amount of respect and love he had and got from poor people was extra-ordinary.

  2. Purple Library Guy said,

    This is piffle. Old school sectarian piffle. I know, it’s a wall of text and I should give a wall of text in return, but it’s hard to take seriously when it’s clearly just “He’s not from my sect so he must be bad”. Ah well, I’ll give a fairly full response, but really this doesn’t deserve it.
    There’s nothing much here about anything that’s happened since the coup in 2002, nothing about the communal councils, nothing about resistance to change by the entrenched mid-level state apparatus . . . it’s certainly true that Chavez’s background was military and that he attempted to use the military to fulfill policy objectives, but this “Bonapartist” wheeze, much like the right wing moan that he’s a “caudillo”, is so far from anything about the nature of the political process as it has unfolded under Chavez that it’s laughable.
    Use of the military under Chavez has been marked by two major objectives, both antithetical to “Bonapartism”. The first was that in the early stages, Chavez’s hold on power was generally tenuous, but he needed to get results quickly on social programs in order to maintain enough popularity to continue his programs. The bureaucracy was generally opposed to significant reforms and tended to choke off attempts to deliver improved services–partly due to corruption, but to a fair degree from a combination of simple bureaucratic inertia and being made up of forces deliberately opposed to Chavez and anything left-ish in nature. He used the military simply because it was the only force available that he could be fairly sure would deliver the services he wanted delivered rather than simply undermining him. The second was something that future leftist governments in many places would do well to consider: Use of the military in delivery of social programs and in various other roles that were basically positive in nature and which brought military personnel in close contact with ordinary poor Venezuelans was done in part in a deliberate attempt to inoculate the military against fascist tendencies, making them less amenable to be used against the people. The idea was to create a military which, far from being usable as death squads, would value their positive role and their positive relationships with the Venezuelan people–whose instincts therefore would be to defend the people from attack, to make common cause with them. This is arguably a needed step if a revolutionary state is to be defended.

    It’s clear that Chavez’s ideology has been evolving over time, and it underwent a sudden break after the 2002 coup. Before the coup, he was basically a reformist, someone who believed sincerely in a “Third Way” approach, hoping to help the people without starting a war with capital. After, he seemed to realize that since any sincere attempt to help the people would bring down the wrath of capital there was no point in making peace, and he rapidly turned towards socialism. Any analysis like the one above which emphasizes the first few years of his presidency is deeply lacking–all the more as frankly, the discussion of the constitution is deeply skewed to fit the desired mould.

    If one looks at the state of grassroots mobilization in Venezuela, it is clear both that it has been powerful in its own right and that Chavez has generally worked to encourage it and create institutional spaces empowering it. Not 100% consistently, no, and many other supposedly Bolivarian politicians have opposed or worked to neuter the popular mobilization, particularly of the trade unionists who have in any case tended to lag other sectors. But compared to any other country on earth, progress has been huge, and Chavez has clearly been using the grassroots mobilization to help him defeat the bureaucrats and the bourgeois. This contrasts with Ecuador or Bolivia, for instance, where despite rhetoric, reforms have been limited to classic “welfare state” approaches. The frustration of attempts at worker control by fierce resistance both from opposition forces and elements calling themselves Chavista has been disheartening–but nowhere else in the world have there been any notable attempts, much less ones supported by laws and presidential rhetoric. No other state has seen anything like the communal councils, the rapid if flawed growth of co-operatives, the proliferation of community media, or the nationalization of significant industries that have happened in Venezuela.

    In short, Chavez was by far the best the world had, and there is no doubt he was sincerely pushing towards a democratic socialism of some sort. It’s pernicious to denounce him as “Bonapartist” because he hadn’t yet broken the whole bourgeoisie and wasn’t part of one’s particular sub-sub-ideology.

    • Jim Denham said,

      “It’s pernicious to denounce him as “Bonapartist” because he hadn’t yet broken the whole bourgeoisie and wasn’t part of one’s particular sub-sub-ideology”:

      What nonsense, Mr Library Guy! You make no serious attempt to refute the analysis of Chavez as a Bonaparte except to call it a “wheeze” and “pernicious.” You are clearly an uncritical fan of a very strange sort of “democratic socialism” – a “democratic socialism” that keeps the bourgeoisie in power and capitalism unchallenged, but puts opponents in jail, opposes independent trade unions (see and allies with the likes of Ahmadinejad and Gaddafi.Not a way forward for working class democratic socialists, but typically the stance of of breathless, Gott-like petty bourgeois hero-worshippers.

  3. Michael Moran said,

    Good riddance. A truly despicable man. I was unconcerned by his support for secular nationalists like Gaddafi and Assad, better them than the Islamo fascists who are supplanting them, but support for Iranian fascism is enough to warrant a negative assessment.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Ah: of course! The Yanks (and/or the Israelis) killed him:

  5. modernity's ghost said,

    A poor, wordy and politically lacking obituary.

    It fails to grasp the nature of societies in Latin America. It is dismissive of key reforms which have benefited the working class and poor. But more importantly comes across as sour grapes from a distant land. It is out of touch and unconcerned with reality of life of many Venezuelans, not a sparkling example of internationalism.

    PS: Jim, it would be far better if you learn to use WordPress, after all of these years, and especially the command when creating these long posts.

    Typographically, they come over as diatribes, whatever the content.

    • modernity's ghost said,

      Ops, WP swallowed it :

      the [more] command when creating these long posts.

      It is between the code and lookup labels on the edit bar in WordPress.

  6. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for that advice, at least, Mod! I’ll give it a try.

  7. Jim Denham said,

  8. modernity's ghost said,

    I think what is most disappointing in these political obituaries is the missing elements:

    The poor and working class in Venezuela.

    Paul Hampton’s tired, partial and dated contribution manages about one sentence:

    “These reforms have benefited some of the poorest sections of Venezuelan society – but also helped cement his rule.”

    But it can’t help sneering.

    I can imagine Tory politicians probably saying in late 1940s: “Labour is only introducing the NHS to cement its rule….” etc

    Which would be equally myopic, silly and spiteful.

    Far too many of these obituaries relegate the working-class to a sentence or a few passing words, without examining what changes took place to reduce poverty in Venezuela, how did it happen and what did it mean to the Venezuelan working class? etc

    I have no problem with those who wished to write a critical obituary of Chavez, but the tendency to focus on foreign policy, be neglectful of the working-class, etc leads to the conclusion that the resultant, disagreeable and largely Western centric view of issues, is a poor substitute for thoughtful analysis.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Which is due to the utter laziness of both left and right.

      How many not only know Spanish but are willing to immerse themselves in the data and the minutiae of how resources are actually distributed.

      My own suspicion from what little serious analysis I have seen is that Venezuela actually has more in common with Peron’s Argentina, Israel in the decades of Ashkenazy Labour dominance and Mexico under the PRI rather than with real social-democracy,

      In all three cases you had populist regimes rooted in a military-revolutionary elite which claimed to represent in a somewhat mystical sense the masses but which chose to redirect resources to the poor not through regular channels of progressive taxation and welfare systems but through elaborate and somewhat corrupt schemes of largesse and literal state capitalism favouring the unions and other institutions that were set up by the ruling party.

      And while these regimes all had real successes and deserved at least some popular support they ultimately were founded upon sand and proved far easier to dismantle and destroy when their national bourgeoisie’s resumed full and direct control than boring reformist European social democracy has been (although that too is now coming to an end).

      • modernity's ghost said,

        No one, certainly not me would argue that Chavez was a social democrat or even pushing towards that model, but the desire to shoehorn, by Western centric commentators, him into the Peron mold is partial, incomplete and exceedingly limited.

        If Marxists claim that the working-class perspective is central to their belief, then surely the numerous improvements to the lives of Venezuelans should be appreciated and documented?

        Lest the readers gain the impression that significant advances to the working-class in Venezuela, are of little or no consequence to those in the West.

        I imagine that Chavez’s changes could be seen (by Latin Americans) as monumental as Clement Attlee’s creation of the NHS.

        From afar these changes may seem inconsequential and irrelevant, but to the working class they are very, very important, Marxists not withstanding.

  9. daniel young said,

    The idea of Marks/Engels was within his rule as was Lenin/Trotsky. and capitals rule.Like the man for his balls and ruthless determination for securing a better deal for his impoverished and ignorant capital status humans,capitals talk for exploit and profit.

  10. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Bonapartism is indeed the right frame of reference.

    Having said that I am more than a little besotted with the original Bonaparte (or at least the icon as created by David and his own assiduous self-promotion rather than the actual emperor who left behind a million corpses in mass graves stretching from Cadiz to Moscow).

    And Marx does make great play of comparing the original Bonaparte with his worthless nephew and epigone – the former was even somewhat against his will a truly progressive force (The Jacobins actually having been thoroughly suppressed by Thermidor when he was still a lowly artillery officer so it was never a choice between the true French Republic and the Empire) while the latter was a largely reactionary one,

    So I can’t see any issue at all with calling Chavez a Bonapartist – hell the term he himself used most often was Bolivarian and Bolivar modelled himself slavishly on the original Bonaparte – as long as you remember that there are Bonapartes and Bonapartes and in varying degrees they combine both progressive and reactionary traits.

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