Trouble in Venezuela has led to some rightists sneering at Owen Jones for supporting the socialist government. Such partisan point-scoring, however, hides an interesting question: what is the origin of Owen's mistake, assuming it to have been one?
The thing is that he is certainly not the first leftie to have put his hopes into a regime that turned out to be disappointing. We've seen the same thing in Beethoven's support for Napoleon; the Webbs' admiration of the Soviet Union; 1960s students chanting "Ho, Ho Ho Chi Minh; "radicals" wearing Che Guevara T-shirts; and Polly Toynbee's lust for Gordon the Viking. We might call this the Bonnie Tyler syndrome: holding out for a hero, a superman to sweep me off my feet, a white knight upon a fiery steed.
Several cognitive biases contribute to this urge for heroic leaders. One is simple wishful thinking. We want to think socialist government can succeed, and the wish is father to the belief. Another is "my enemy's enemy is my friend" syndrome: opponents of the US imperialism can easily find supporters in the western left.
But there's another bias at work here. The thing is that centralized power tends to be misused, as Lord Acton famously pointed out. In supporting men from Napoleon to Chavez lefties have overweighted the ability of some exceptional individuals to resist the corrupting influence of unequal power relations*. This is a particular form of the fundamental attribution error, the tendency to overweight the role of individual agency and underweight situational factors.
Marx's writings - as opposed to some of his followers! - provide an antidote to this. Successful socialism, he thought, requires a particular level of development, one in which it was technically feasible for workers to control the economy themselves:
New superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.
Unless this condition is met, a revolution will be too premature to succeed:
Development of productive forces...is an absolutely necessary practical premise [for communism] because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.
In this context, the urge for political heroes is anti-Marxist, because it is a search for great men rather than the right socio-technical conditions. Owen's mistake, then, isn't that he's a leftist, but that he is not a Marxist.
* I'm thinking here not just of moral but also intellectual corruption - the tendency of authoritarian structures to cause those in power to live (pdf) in "purely imaginary worlds."