Thirty years after their heyday in the GLC, Militant Tendency and People’s Nuclear-Free Republic of Lambeth, there aren’t many places where Britain’s Far Left hold sway any more. Kicked out of most town halls by the early 1990s, and expelled from the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock, their leaders have largely either faded into obscurity or reinvented themselves as moderates.
Take Derek Hatton, for example, who was deputy council leader in Liverpool during the Militant days. After quitting politics altogether he became a radio talk show host and property developer, and now offers his services as a motivational speaker.
Then there was “Red” Ted Knight, who once flew to Nicaragua to express solidarity between the Sandinistas and “the people of Lambeth”. Last heard of running a language school called South Chelsea College (actually based a long way south of Chelsea in, er, Brixton).
True, Knight’s former ally, Ken Livingstone, did of course become Mayor of London, but few would say he ever strayed much to the Left of normal Labour policies during his time in office. Overall, I suspect that Wolfie Smith and the Tooting Popular Front would not be impressed.
There is, however, one ageing Trotskyite who has had arguably far more influence than any of his peers, despite remaining firmly true to his principles and all but unknown to the general public.
Raise a clenched fist, please, for Alan Woods – a 68-year-old former Militant member from Swansea, whose unreconstructed brand of Marxism was a huge influence on the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who died last week.
As The Sunday Telegraph first reported back in 2010, Mr Woods, who now edits the website www.marxist.com, won Mr Chavez’s attention after writing a book called “Revolution or Reform”, a heavy-going 456-page defence of Marxist orthodoxy.
While it didn’t exactly make the best-seller lists in Britain, in Venezuela it won the ultimate accolade – a personal plug on the president’s weekly television show, where El Comandante used to sing songs, interview guests and generally hold forth for hours on end.
“I am reading it in great detail, I am taking notes on this book,” Chavez declared during a broadcast a few years ago, in which he blasted his own apparatchiks for failing to fight government corruption.
During Mr Chavez’s reign, Mr Woods made personal visits to the presidential palace, and also did a nationwide tour of Venezuela promoting his book, which drew in crowds of hundreds. And so it was that the writings of an obscure, hard-Left socialist from Wales finally helped shape an actual revolución, several thousand miles away from his homeland.
True, Mr Woods, who now lives in London, was no armchair activist. Born into a working-class family in Swansea, he joined the Young Socialists at 16, studied Russian in Moscow, and in his late 20s, moved with his wife and two young daughters to Spain to join the struggle against the fascist regime of Franco. Among his other admirers are Leon Trotsky’s own grandson, Vsievolod Volkov, who says he is the closest living political theorist to his grandfather.
To date he has always been fairly modest about the extent of his influence on Chavez – not least because the Venezuelan opposition used to portray him as a sinister foreign influence, and Chavez’s “main ideological mentor after Fidel Castro.”
But in an interview last Wednesday with the Welsh Western Mail, in which Mr Woods sang Mr Chavez’s praises, he confirmed that the pair “had quite a close political relationship.”
“On one occasion I congratulated him on quite a radical speech and he caught hold of my hand, looked me straight in the face and said, ‘Only a few reflections and ideas which I have learnt from you’,” Mr Woods recounted.
One of those ideas is thought to have been Mr Chavez’s nationalisation of a large number of private firms, many of them owned by what Mr Woods describes as “parasitic” oligarchs.
A prominent casualty of that policy was the Vestey Group, the British multinational that ran vast cattle ranches in Venezuela. Its chairman, Lord Vestey, is almost a caricature of the Establishment foes of the Citizen Smith era, being Eton-educated, a friend of Prince Charles, and one of Britain’s richest men, none of which won him friends with the Chavistas. As Mr Woods put it in a 2010 article addressing the question of nationalisation: “This policy is…the only realistic way of defending the Revolution against the systematic sabotage of the bankers and capitalists, who are determined to overthrow it by any means at their disposal.”
That, by the way, is one of his more moderate pronunciations. Among his other writings are gems that would appear straight from the pen of Dave Spart, the fictional militant who appears in the satirical magazine Private Eye.
Elsewhere in Where is the Venezuelan Revolution Going, for example, he says: “The superiority of a nationalised planned economy was demonstrated by the colossal successes of the USSR in the past.”
Whether Mr Woods continues to be an influence on the Chavista revolution remains to be seen.
While the late Venezuelan leader enjoyed popularity for his social programmes, his spending was also criticised for creating rampant inflation that wiped much of the benefits out. The nationalisation programme was also criticised for scaring off much-needed foreign investment. Or, if you prefer Mr Wood’s version of events, “the leaders of the counterrevolutionary opposition have naturally reacted hysterically.”
Among Mr Woods’ critics are also a number of people who also used to be fellow ideological travellers, like Teodoro Petkoff, who started out as a communist but is now a prominent Chavez critic.
While Mr Petkoff may no longer share Mr Wood’s political convictions, he still shares his knack for colourful, bilious, George Galloway-style rhetoric, as this article in TalCual, a prominent Venezuelan opposition newspaper, demonstrates.
“Woods is part of that handful of castaways who left the shipwreck of the USSR,” Petkoff writes. “Solitary souls who are looking for a sponsor in order to continue pontificating on ‘Marxism-Leninism’ and ‘revolution’ from their dusty and cobwebbed pulpits.”
As they say in Venezuela (and in Lambeth, Liverpool and Swansea) – Viva la Revolución.