Chavez and Charisma as a Source of Power

Venezuelan writer Rosa Tristan examines the philosophical and historical forces behind charismatic leadership, then looks at Hugo Chavez’s political role within that framework.

It’s easy enough to realise that there is a world institution and media campaign whose ultimate aim is to get rid of [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez, one of the very few [world] leaders who waves the flag of socialism.

Chavez, after his legendary phrase, “for now” [said after his failed coup attempted in 1992], became a centrifugal force of hope. Everyone turned their attention to every step he took, to every word he said.

The majority of the press commentators dedicate their intellectual strength to discrediting him. All the communicational artillery shoots at him day and night, but the masses stay by his side, loyal, election after election, attack after attack, sabotage after sabotage.

The question that we’ll try to decipher today is: Is leadership charisma an inexhaustible force? Is charisma the only guarantee of power? What determines the loyalty of the people in the face of adversities and setbacks?

We’ll analyse the phenomenon of charismatic leaders from two points of view: From the mystic, the unexplainable point of view, where the masses are captivated; and from the historical point of view where leaders are products of social conditions that demand the raising of voices that defend the need for changes in the system. We’ll see that although many people have studied the big leaders of humanity, charisma, its origin, its source, and its duration, depend on certain exceptional characteristics of the individual, but also on fulfilling the expectations of society.

Some sociologists like Max Weber define charisma as an unexplainable emotional rope that is revealed in the interaction with others, as a fusion of the inner being of the leader and of his followers. Textually, Weber says, “…charisma is the quality that passes as extraordinary (its origin magically conditioned just like with prophets, sorcerers, umpires, hunters, or military leaders), it’s a personality that for their virtue is considered to be in possession of super natural or super human forces, or in the very least, specifically unusual and unachievable aspects for any other person, or as sent by god, or as exemplary, and as a consequence, as a boss, leader, or guide. The accepted way would be to assess the quality in question “objectively”, from an ethical, aesthetical, or whatever other point of view, something that is unimportant as far as our concept is concerned, as what is important is how it’s valued “by the dominated”, by the “followers”.[1]

According to this concept, charisma forms part of what is divine, myth, or brilliant.

Along this line of thought, a more recent study by Blanca Deusdad [2] explains that charisma is wrapped up in a mystical element and the leader who possesses it can, through discourse, express the things and worries of his or her followers. The leader, according to this theory, is a symbol that, just like the Messiahs, is followed and respected since she or he is the guarantee of salvation. This study associates mass movements with religious fervour.

To analyse the charismatic political leader as a historical phenomenon, we find theorists such as Georgi Plekhanov, who, in his book The Role of the Individual in History [3] reveals the riddle of the functioning of this apparently mysterious force.

Plekhanov uses the story of Plutarco, about the life of Tiberio, putting him in a historic space and time where the republican political system doesn’t represent the interests of the population. A judicial system existed that defended the interests of the large landowners and the owners of the means of production. Only they could have an influence on the construction of the social structures.

Within that historic framework, Tiberio and his character and intelligence are influenced by the social relations of his time, which allows the people to identify with him, converting him into a social force. He responded to the social necessities of his time, which arose from the slave-based forces of production. If Tiberio hadn’t responded to the social needs of his time, he wouldn’t have been transformed into a charismatic leader.

This fact enabled him to count on sufficient tools to find the ways to modify the forces of production in virtue of the needs and interests of the people, and have an influence on history.

In conclusion, Plekhanov clarifies that social relations are the driver of historic events, engendering personalities that gradually acquire a determining social force in order to change the structures and direct the general orientations of the movement. Political charismatic leaders acquire popularity in as much as they respond to the needs of the  majority who live in total abandon and inequality.

However, at this point we ask ourselves: Is the revolution independent of this individual, of this leader? Are historical forces superior to any individual? To respond we’ll use the example of Lenin. What would have happened without Lenin?

The situation pushed many Bolsheviks to only go so far as the bourgeois revolution, since the substitution of the feudal monarchic system was unstoppable, but they didn’t want to advance towards socialism. However, this process accelerated with the arrival of Lenin. Without the party they wouldn’t have been able to install the dictatorship of the proletariat. Without Lenin, the process could have been aborted. Without Lenin the party wouldn’t have been anything more than a propaganda tool. Lenin was a very important link. But neither the party nor Lenin were the result of something random or some kind of divine gift. They were the results of years of ideological formation, of healed wounds, of selection. A party, a few leaders, don’t improvise. They are fruit of study, of understanding the stages of history, of looking towards the future, towards a new society.

Chavez, socialist leader

Chavez is experienced as something pertaining to us, as “one of our own”; he gets close with his mannerisms and his attitude towards every day things, to what is familiar. His simplicity and joviality bring him close to the homes of the poor of the world. His way of expressing himself and his discourse are used by the majority. He is the bastion, the symbol that brings it all together, that foments social cohesion. He’s the integrating element.

His charisma was strengthened because it embodied the ideas of the best human beings and of thousands who lost their lives defending those ideas. He declared himself anti-imperialist and socialist. He promised to unite society and encourage the participation of the people in a social fabric in order to be an example of new economic and spiritual ways. The muse and the historical conditions of Chavez coincide in one place: The superseding of capitalism and the construction of a new socialist society.

His popularity in electoral periods or outside of them responds to the values of the society that is prominent. In so far as plans are carried out that aim towards a more fair society where the current misery is overcome, those who are hopeful will put everything on the line for their leader. His charisma will act like a force of social reordering that will obtain the participation of the population without having to impose anything. He can mobilise the masses, appease the crowds, channel passions and sublimate frustrations.

The humble people place their confidence in the clarity of objectives, in the firmness, in socialism. Only these factors will keep the flame burning.

Diversions toward capitalist economic forms will bring moral crises. With the attitudes of the bourgeoisie as the high point, the suitcase and businesses will once again be the alter-ego. The voters will seek to connect with this moral and then the magic will disappear, the illusion will break.

The crisis will bring leaders with pre-fabricated charisma. Fascism will set the stage for the drama of an unborn leader, with false patriotic sentiments. She or he will be legitimised by elections without it mattering that they are inconsistent political leaders.

Every historical moment has its possible charismatic expression. What can’t fail now is the expression of socialism.


[1] WEBER, Max. Economía y sociedad. Madrid: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1993 [1922].

[2] DEUSDAD, Blanca. El carisma político en la teoría sociológica. Universitat de Barcelona Facultat de Ciències Econòmiques i Empresarials, 2001.

[3] PLEJANOV, Gueorgui.  El papel del individuo en la historia. Buenos Aires: Editorial Intermundo, 1959 [1898].

Translated by Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.com