The bicentenary of the birth of Simón Bolívar generated numerous congresses and an outpouring of writings and papers, not all of them well conceived and not all yet published. Among the many books which have marked the occasion, the contribution of Germán Arciniegas deserves particular consideration for its intellectual content and the distinction of the author. The book evidently holds a special place in his own mind, as he tells us in his foreword: “Anyone who looks up the catalogue in a public library will find that I have written forty books. But this is not the case. For fifty-five years I have been trying to write one single book, and this is its final chapter” (p. 12). The result, thankfully, is not a blow-by-blow account of the life and times of Bolívar. Rather, it is a series of substantial essays on major themes, formative influences, and background factors, with an emphasis on political ideas and Bolivarian thought, though without a firm structure or chronological framework. The book opens with a long discussion of British influence, interests, and policy, followed by a rather briefer glance at the United States. The central core is a study of the enlightenment in New Granada and its liberal aftermath, a section which is deliberately placed to precede, rather than follow, a discussion of the influence of France and the impact of Haiti. The book closes with a short essay on Bolívar’s place in Latin American independence, which reads like a lecture of 1983 vintage.
Precision in tracing ideological influences and intellectual causation is notoriously elusive, not least in a leader like Bolívar, whose ideas were a means to action and whose actions were based on many imperatives, political, military, and financial, as well as intellectual. Arciniegas does not overcome these difficulties. His account of intellectual trends does not inspire confidence, and his interpretation of British and European history is distorted in many respects. There is a tendency towards triumphalism in his treatment of Bolívar and Spanish American independence. But his book has the merit of demonstrating that Europe was not the source of everything, that Bolívar was not a mere creature of his age, not a slave to French or North American examples. His own revolution was unique, and in developing his ideas and policies, he followed not the models of the Western world but the needs of his own America, an America whose historical identity has long been a prime preoccupation of the Colombian author.
Arciniegas does not address himself to the concept of the “age of revolution,” nor does he consider Hobsbawm’s thesis of the “dual revolution,” deriving its economic model from Britain and its political motivation from France. Yet it would strengthen his case to point out that neither of these conceptual frameworks can accommodate the movement led by Bolívar. The Enlightenment itself had a number of blind spots, one of which was nationalism; it failed to produce a concept of colonial liberation or war of independence. The Enlightenment, moreover, was not essentially an instrument of revolution. While it was hostile to entrenched privilege and to inequality before the law, it had little to say on economic inequalities or on the redistribution of resources within society. Arciniegas, too, remains silent on these aspects of the subject, though they were certainly present in Bolívar’s world and have since become part of the historiography of independence.