Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Lenin, Chavez, and Apocalypse

Did I mention I lived in Venezuela for a year?  My wife worked for Mobil Oil at the time, and went with them when they hurried back to Venezuela at the invitation of the government.  Apparently they needed help in developing their oil fields.  Everything had deteriorated since the oil industry had been nationalized.

In a year we were gone.  Why?  Because Hugo Chavez had been elected president, and nationalization was back.  We had been prepared for the coming change in meetings at the "American" school, listening to principal and staff inform us of the radical changes coming in the country--undoubtedly with talking points supplied by the CIA and other governmental officials.

I have been of two minds about Chavez ever since.  I don't see him as the savior/liberator that he thought himself to be; but neither do I see him as the cynical yet simple-minded mouthpiece of a tyrannical socialist agenda, which only wants to level the results not the playing field.

So, I make it a point to read most articles about him that I come across.  Which brings me to the topic of this entry.

I was reading the other day an article that tried to situate Chavez in the theory and practice of Leninism.  (Did I mention that I lived in Norway for four years, back in the early '80's; when the Soviets were the super-power in that area, and the ferment in leftist intellectual circles centered on Marxism and Euro-Communism?  I didn't think so.)  It was rather dense going; and when the author went off on a riff about Leninism and "the end of history," I just about  put it down for good.  Was Lenin himself a Leninist?  What did "the end of history mean?"

At the risk of displaying my own deep ignorance on the topic, the point I took from the article was that Chavez, during his early years in the military, and then through the years of his imprisonment for an early, botched military coup, read and studied thoroughly the Marxist/Leninist body of work--and then himself, when he attained power though his election to the presidency, was faced with the same difficulties Lenin faced when the Bolsheviks attained power: How does one govern?  Specifically, how, after all the theory trumpeted the ascendancy of the dictatorship of the proletariat as "the end of history," did the leader govern in the midst of a history that was still unfolding?  Hadn't the final stage just been achieved?  What more was left to do?

And then I was stunned by a thought that just came to me from who knows where:  Wasn't this dilemma similar to the dilemma that apocalyptic thought itself faces?  Think of the apocalyptic event as the end of history, the coming of the radically new, the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth, the fulfillment of the deepest longing of the human heart and soul: an end to all the suffering and travail of the human spirit, when we could all live in harmony with all; when it all made sense, when it all fit together, when the lion lay down with the sheep, and brother and sister loved brother and sister--and so on and so forth, until we wept with joy and happiness that at last we were free at last to be ourselves at last.

This is the subtle temptation of apocalypse--and of Leninism!  It is not that the dream is wrong; it is that the dream is made out to be a template for the perfect society. The dream is looked to be the model, the plan, what is to be translated into reality.  But as we know, translations never do justice to the original.  Or else it is seen as the idea, which has only to be realized.  And here, too, it fails; it is like thinking we can write poetry with ideas (as in: "I have this great idea for a poem."), when the truth is that poetry is written with words.

The same can be said of stories about apocalypse or the end (of history): only so much description of the perfect society or the new world can be endured, before the conflicts begin and the narrative unfolds.  For this is where we all truly live--here in the midst of history, before the end.  As the younger generation says: Deal with it!

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