By James Dunkerley
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The Enduring Spell of Bolivar

This article is over 15 years, 6 months old
James Dunkerley is impressed by a new biography of the Latin American freedom fighter.
Issue 308

More than 175 years have passed since Simon Bolivar died of tuberculosis. Yet the man, his ideas and actions have never been more prominent in world affairs. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s energetic yet essentially evocative “Bolivarianism” has recently caught the imagination of many seeking some sort of historically rooted popular response to the neo-liberal empire in the West.

In Bolivia there is a new plebeian and democratic government led by Evo Morales. The country, which was named after the man who liberated it in 1825, derives more in form than substance from its first (Venezuelan) president. Still, the ties with Chavez and the current political force of patriotism in Bolivia – a nation-state many considered entirely artificial at its birth – are far from insignificant. Chavez directly summons up the familiar image of “the man on horseback”, a military and political leader whose pre-photographic iconic status trades just below that of Che Guevara.

That projection of Bolivar is of a man who is undoubtedly brave, charismatic and intrepid, but also a vain, autocratic oligarch who failed miserably in his efforts to emulate George Washington or Napoleon Bonaparte. His romanticism and heroism have provided a template for an entire continental tradition of militarised politics, as readily appropriated by radicals as by reactionaries.

John Lynch opens and closes his new life of Bolivar by addressing precisely this modern invocation. Lynch’s approach is that of a sceptical liberal, contrasting the “traditional cult” of Bolivar – which was upheld by the generals who ruled Venezuela for the first half of the 20th century – with the “new heresy” of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Lynch repudiates both versions, the former because it misrepresented the meaning of Bolivar’s thought, and the latter because it conjures up a socialist and populist figure, when Bolivar was certainly not the former and almost certainly not the latter either. The book closes with a passage that is at once conclusive and open-ended:

“By exploiting the authoritarian tendency, which certainly existed in the thought and action of Bolivar, regimes in Cuba and Venezuela claim the Liberator as a patron for their policies, distorting his ideas in the process. Thus the Bolivar of liberty and equality is appropriated by a Marxist regime, which does not hold liberty and equality in high esteem but needs a substitute for the failed Soviet model. And in Venezuela a populist regime of the 21st century, looking for political legitimacy, is drawn to Bolivar as to a magnet, another victim of the spell. Who is to say that it is the last?”

Leaving aside the issue of whether the regime in Havana is properly described as “Marxist”, it is worth noting that Marx himself had very little time for Bolivar. In one of his distinctly unimpressive writings – the entry for “Bolivar” written in January 1858 for Charles Dana’s New American Cyclopaedia – Marx dropped any pretence at objectivity and resorted to an uncritical harvesting of the anti-Bolivar tracts available in the British Museum.

I suspect that if the author had been Frederick Engels, who was covering some entries on Marx’s behalf, it would have been markedly more favourable to Bolivar. Engels’s interest in military matters was sharper and deeper than that of Marx, and Bolivar was assuredly a military figure, albeit one who combined the practice of generalship with political leadership. It is, indeed, that rare combination which today makes Bolivar so hard to comprehend, yet so readily exploited.

John Lynch, who has researched the history of early 19th century Latin America for over 50 years, is quietly assured in describing and explaining this. His biography is largely organised in narrative and chronological form, but the second of the 12 chapters takes a more expansive look at Bolivar’s political thought and influences, while the seventh chapter assesses his evolving vision for the societies of the Americas after independence.

Lynch has long sustained the argument that however personalist, inconsistent and increasingly autocratic Bolivar’s behaviour became, he was always distinguished from previous military and political leaders by his adhesion to constitutional form, his consistent attention to institutions and the detail of their workings, his breadth of social vision, and his general preparedness – often desire – to engage in argument.

This even-toned text – the first serious full length survey in any language for half a century – is primarily about the politics, secondarily about military matters (well placed in their social and strategic contexts), and thirdly about the psychological profile of the man. Since John Lynch is a historian of distinctly professional cast, this weighting corresponds directly to the availability of documentary material.

Military achievements

The war of independence from Spain in the Americas lasted for 15 years in a period when prolonged conflict in Europe had promoted military professionalism. This was particularly the case for the importance of staff functions to field operations, yielding tens of thousands of written reports, musters, assessments and orders in addition to ordinary correspondence. On the basis of that extraordinarily rich official and personal material we can plot the conflict in a remarkably precise manner. Lynch significantly enhances our appreciation of Bolivar’s military achievements.

The early phase of the struggle, between 1810 and 1815, is especially hard to follow since it involved many complex local disputes as the polarisation between colonies and metropolis took an erratic course. On occasion the reader is tested by the sheer number of political leaders and factions in the initial Venezuelan conflict, but that experience of multiple factions, unclear and mixed interests, and aggressive sectarianism lies at the core of this phase of history. It was what progressively drove Bolivar away from his initial attachment to liberalism, federalism and rigid constitutional design.

That ideological journey can be captured through a kind of “freeze-frame” account based on Bolivar’s three most important political documents – the Letter from Jamaica (1815) the Angostura Address (1819) and the Constitution for Bolivia (1826). Each is carefully considered here in its own terms. It is also looked at from the perspective of the evolution of a man defeated and in exile seeking the support of Britain after the fall of Napoleon in France, to an exhausted conqueror on a continental scale desperate to secure social order in new states that seemed to have won independence at the expense of rampant anarchy.

Bolivar never once mentioned in writing the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which kept the US from giving official recognition to the countries that had emerged from under the Spanish yoke, and he barely referred to the several weeks he spent in the US in 1806. The trajectory of his ideas and policy always modulated around securing a British alliance as well as crafting a republican polity out of the British model of constitutional monarchy.

In 1815 this focused on promoting the commercial advantages to London and Liverpool of breaking with Spain’s attempt to reconquer its colonies – a matter that Bolivar had debated in London with foreign secretary Wellesley in 1810, which Lynch narrates in vivid style.

By 1826 Bolivar was effectively “on autopilot” in repudiating any possibility of emulating the example of the US, treating the Anglo-American revolution as just as alien to the Spanish American experience as the French Revolution. There is, then, little basis for finding an anti-imperialism in Bolivar’s thought except insofar as it related to Spain. Nevertheless, it is easy to underestimate his radicalism and to find him wanting by standards alien to his era. By 1819 he had been at war for the better part of a decade, and this was a war “to the death”, involving the regular execution of all prisoners, and the torture and massacre of unarmed civilians. At Angostura, Bolivar was writing from an isolated town to which he had been driven by forces upholding absolutist monarchy, the Inquisition, slavery and all the privileges of pre-modern social hierarchy. By contrast, the Liberator (a title awarded early and stuck to throughout the rest of his life) declared:

“A republican government, that is what Venezuela had, has, and should have. Its principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery, and the abolition of monarchy and privileges. We need equality to recast, so to speak, into a single whole, the classes of men, political opinions, and public custom.”

Six months later in Manchester, 11 civilians would be killed and 400 wounded by cavalry charging with sabres to break up a crowd of around 60,000 making far more modest demands – for parliamentary reform and the end of the Corn Laws. If Bolivar was seeking a diplomatic alliance with the British oligarchy, his domestic social and political platform stood far closer to the protesters they attacked at Peterloo.

Today Chavez is seeking to reanimate the regional alliance sought by Bolivar at the abortive 1826 conference in Panama. In the same year his laboriously drafted Constitution for Bolivia provided for a president for life with powers to appoint his successor, a set of censors to oversee public morals, and an absolutely nominal role for popular elections. In the words of his faithful adjutant Daniel O’Leary, “He sought a system capable of controlling revolutions, not theories which might foment them – the fatal spirit of ill-conceived democracy which had already produced so many evils in America had to be curbed if its effects were to be avoided.”

A good case can be made for the argument that today Evo Morales is repudiating the Bolivar of 1826 in the name of the Bolivar of 1819. John Lynch has written a fine book that will help to inform and animate such debates. Many readers of SR will find it useful and engaging even as they disagree with its political assumptions and tone.

Professor James Dunkerley is the director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at University College London. Simon Bolivar by John Lynch is published by Yale University Press, £25

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