Photo: Alba Ciudad

“Reactionary” is ordinarily applied to a political position of the far right, synonymous with conservative or, in Maduro-speak, “ultraderecha.” But as it is defined as someone “opposing political or social liberalization or reform” (Google definition), it also fits that segment of the Left that continues to cling to the 100-year-old vision of politics and projects that have long proven themselves to be failures. The results can be seen in the collapse of the USSR and now in Venezuela.

The reactionary left —exemplified today by the Bolivarian Solidarity Left (BSL)— seems incapable of understanding why communism (or “real socialism”) collapsed in the late 20th century and why Venezuela’s present-day version of socialism isn’t doing any better. As a group, it could be characterized as “opposing political or social liberalization or reform” —indeed, to this crop of unreflective and utterly reflexive dogmatists, any step toward reform or show of flagging zeal is indication of counter-revolutionary and “right-wing” deviation or “apostasy.” That’s because, like reactionaries of all stripes, they base their hope on the restoration of a golden past with a sense of religious conviction, and, of course, religious conviction requires zeal, total, undoubting conviction and faith.

The reactionary left seems incapable of understanding why communism (or “real socialism”) collapsed in the late 20th century.

In the case of the Bolivarian Solidarity Left, that golden age of the past was the time of Chávez, the missions, and, not coincidentally, the decade of high oil prices (2004-2014). That’s the world to which they wish to return: Never mind that it was based on accumulation of debt, unsustainable economic practice, patronage, the debasing of the national currency, polarizing politics, all of which caused the current disaster.

But that doesn’t matter to this reactionary BSL because, in their Leninist worldview, the role of the people is to uncritically support the vanguard, even if it means supporting it against the people, against the country, against the economic, social and political system and even against reason and every human value. Worst of all they collude with the “vanguard” to conceal the dire situation of the people as it shifts blame for the problems onto “imperialism,” “capitalism,” the “oligarchy,” etc.

Despite their claims to be “in solidarity with Venezuela,” this reactionary left couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the actual people of Venezuela. Their “people” is an ideal abstraction without physical bodies or individual lives; this collectivized abstraction doesn’t stand in lines for food and go hungry or, worse still, watch its children or elderly parents go hungry or driven into exile by hunger and persecution from an authoritarian government. “The people” of the BSL, in other words, are imaginary and it bears no more resemblance to Venezuelans than the Leninist “proletariat” did to the Russian workers.

I will grant the BSL one point, though: Chávez was in the vanguard. Along with Fujimori in Peru, he was in the vanguard of neo-populism, and both he and Fujimori represented its poles, left and right, respectively. Post-1989 neo-populism has provided the reinforcement personnel for the now extinct fascism and nearly extinct communism in their war against liberalism. Like the fascists and communists, the neo-populists recognize the real weaknesses of liberal democracy: its individualism, its elitism, its hypocrisy and its willingness to throw all of society into the market and let each one fend for him or herself—and these weaknesses have become even more apparent in the most recent phase of liberalism, that is, under “neo-liberalism” with its reduced state “drowning in the bathtub.”

Despite their claims to be “in solidarity with Venezuela,” this reactionary left couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the actual people of Venezuela.

But the neo-populists and their supporters throw the baby out with the bathwater, or better said, murder the baby and steal the bathtub. Whether in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, or Hungary, Poland, Russia, the Philippines, and now in the United States, with Donald Trump, the neo-populists use the liberal democratic order to come to power and then set about destroying it: checks and balances to power, the liberal rights of free thought, free press, free assembly, free dissent, free dissemination of information and ideas. In short, it’s their goal to destroy democracy, and put in its place the authoritarian leader.

It’s admittedly hard to make a case for the defense of liberal democracy which has so deeply disappointed and failed us, except that the alternative at this point, neo-populism, represented by the likes of Duterte, Erdogan, Orban, Maduro, Putin and Trump, is so much worse. While it’s true they share no common ideology —and, in that sense, they resemble Mussolini’s original fascism, which remained a rather amorphous ideology, its main concern was to protect il Duce’s personal power— they have common concerns (their own power) and common backing.

Liberalism often appears to be as difficult a concept to pin down as populism, since it also takes so many forms in different places, but it’s known for a fairly well-defined set of values and principles (mentioned above), all associated with liberality and liberty. And liberalism also has right and left wings, represented by neo-liberalism on the right and an array of liberal socialists and social liberals who blend into, and mix well with, social democrats in organizations like the British Labor Party or Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or, in Venezuela, embodied by Causa R, Voluntad Popular and other parties of the opposition.

Clearly, liberal democracy needs to be rethought, reformed and revised, and fortunately some of that work has already been started by Anthony Giddens, Norberto Bobbio and, of course, so many thoughtful people in the Venezuelan opposition, both in and out of political parties. We mustn’t allow perfection to be the enemy of the good, or even of the broken-but-potentially-reparable.

We’re stuck with making liberal democracy work until we can create a better alternative.

We’re stuck with making liberal democracy work until we can create a better alternative because only under liberal democratic governments can the most critical elements needed to find that alternative emerge: independent, critical and transformative social movements. We have to end the hunt for saviors, be the persons or those elites known as “vanguard,” and abandon solidarity with them, as to place our hope in ourselves, and in our movements, such as those we saw arise in 2014 among students, and 2017, among the general population, in Venezuela.

In social movements, left and right ideologies tend to take a back seat to projects, as Ivan Fuentes of the Social Movement of Aysén emphasized when he talked about working across political lines and helping “people regain their faith in politics, in our way of doing politics.” Fuentes understands that enduring change comes from social movements, not political parties. Political parties can only institutionalize those changes that the people win. That’s why those of us who value unity based on democracy, pluralism, diversity and the real people with their common concerns, need to form movements to end, detain or interrupt neo-populism and protect the institutions of democracy that guarantee everyone’s rights.

But before we can even begin to understand how we might proceed with that work, we’ll need to open our minds and let go of old reactionary ideas —left and right— and the polarizing politics of populism that have long since proven themselves worse than useless.

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