Back to the Future: The Long Roots of Venezuela’s Communal Tradition

Chris Gilbert takes a look at history to understand how past and present come together in the construction of a new society. 

back to the future chris gilbert

Socialist communes may be new in Venezuela – officially, they began no earlier than 2009 – but, like much that is new, they also rely on old traditions and hence involve a “blast from the past.” On a certain level, it is hardly surprising that overcoming the radical atomization of capitalist society could be fueled by elements of past social formations in as much as these later, especially those dating from prehistory, were overwhelmingly communitarian. However, much of the Marxist left falls into the trap of thinking that a socialist future will be generated, if not ex nihilo, at least without reference to past epochs and their social forms. In defense of this latter approach, one can appeal to Marx himself who wrote in 1852 that bourgeois revolutions appeal to history (“to smother their content”), but proletarian revolutions take their poetry from the future.

As we shall see, Marx later revised this idea, coming to embrace the relevance of the communal past for the socialist future. However, this backward-looking shift in Marx is not well-known, and it has not kept the bulk of the socialist movement from being oblivious to the importance of communitarian pasts. Latin America may be an exception to this general theoretical trend, for the simple reason that that continent’s past weighs heavily on the present and many political movements appeal to it. In Venezuela, anthropologists Iraida Vargas and Mario Sanoja have forcefully argued for the pertinence of the region’s communal past – and the relics of communitarian practices that survive today – to the project of socialist construction. They claim that both Venezuela’s history and its long-standing cultural traditions could be the basis of the Bolivarian Process’s development of communal socialism, having uncovered some surprising links between the future that the revolution aspires to and its roots in a society whose practices of solidarity and deep-seated conceptions of equality are often shaped by Indigenous and African traditions.

Incan Communism

In Latin American Marxist theory, the first great – and still the most famous – “blast from the past” came from Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui. In 1928, he published his watershed work Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. While most of Marxism was riding high on the workers’ victory in the incipient USSR and had its gaze directed toward the final struggle that would usher in the glorious communist future, Mariátegui cast his vision toward the past of his Andean country. His creative approach to Marxism sent shockwaves through the consensus of the Third International, for which Latin America’s “semi-feudal” societies had nothing to offer to the socialist project. Yet Mariátegui was unable to accept their rote, blanket rejection of the past. Instead, he argued that the collective nature of Incan society, especially the lack of private property over the land, represented a “communist past” in the Andean region that, far from being over and done with, constituted a living legacy that could inspire present and future post-capitalist constructions.

His essay called “The Problem of the Land,” which appears third in the Seven Essays collection presents the claim clearly. Mariátegui wrote there that liberal-style land reform in Peru, which some were calling for, was not the solution for overcoming the latifundio and Indigenous servitude. He thought that the historical moment to divide the land into small parcels had passed. Instead, an overtly socialist collective solution was possible and even necessary, because of “that undeniable and concrete factor which gives its peculiar character to our agrarian problem: the survival of the community and of elements of a practical socialism in indigenous agriculture and life.” Mariátegui’s idea – and by “community” he was referring to Indigenous ayllus – was that there was enough alive of what he called “Incan communism” to pursue a collective approach to land reform. In effect, the pre-colonial past and its forms of land tenure could be reactivated to construct a socialist future.

This backward-looking vision is essentially romantic if that term is used to denote a broad tendency that, in Michael Löwy’s words, amounts to “a cultural protest against modern capitalist civilization based on social, cultural, political or religious values are precapitalist or premodern or preindustrial.” Such romanticism is widespread in Latin America, where the ghosts of the past (Simón Bolívar, José Martí, Emiliano Zapata) often seem more alive than the wan politics of the living. However, in Mariátegui’s case, a commitment to historical materialism gave his approach to Peru’s past a more robust scientific character. Mariátegui called himself a “convicted and confessed” Marxist. With one eye on the past and another on the present, he understood communism to be an existential issue of the continent, declaring that “only a socialist Latin America could stand up to a capitalist North America.”

The Last Marx

Mariátegui’s claims clashed with what most Marxist were thinking at the time, and they would lead to some hot debates with the statist Marxists of the Third International (who contended that Latin America’s underdeveloped countries could only aspire to a stage of capitalist development in the short and even middle term). Still, unbeknownst to him, Mariátegui’s thinking resonated with the direction taken by the “Last Marx” on the issue of the relevance of communitarian life-forms to socialism. After publishing Capital volume 1 in 1867, Marx continued to investigate, casting his attention now toward the periphery of capitalism and also assimilating the findings brought by social science’s recent discovery of prehistory. The new field of prehistory, which revealed that human life reached back millions of years, had an enormous impact on how human beings and human development were viewed at the time – not the least because it opened a window on what came to be called “primitive communism.” Marx also began to study Russia in detail, even learning the language. He had a particular interest in Russian forms of land tenure, including the survival of the peasant commune, and entered into communication with Russian intellectuals and militants.

One of these was the populist-turned-social-democrat Vera Zasulich. She wrote to Marx in 1881 about the particular issue of the Russian peasant commune (the obshchina), asking whether it could be an asset in constructing socialism, as some Russian populists argued, or whether it would simply have to disappear, making way for a long stage of capitalist development. Zasulich might have thought that, given Marx’s earlier defense of progressive development through capitalism (even when brought about by colonialists!), he would acknowledge the need for the peasant commune to disappear. Yet Marx’s thinking, perhaps under the influence of the Paris commune (1871), was now going in a different direction. His historiography had taken a distinctively romantic turn. That is to say, for Marx now the archaic past was no longer simply dead and irretrievable, and human development, instead of being linear and progressive, was more like a curved circuit in which the past potentially touches off and ignites the future.

In this spirit, in composing his various drafts to Zasulich, Marx came to affirm that Russia’s old-fashioned peasant communes were not necessarily doomed to disappear but could instead be a “vehicle of social regeneration” and a “direct starting point of the system to which contemporary society strives.” Backtracking on what he implied earlier in Capital I – that the more advanced society shows “to the less developed one, its own future” – Marx was now suggesting that less-advanced societies might hold a few lessons of their own for the future. The letter and drafts to Zasulich would only be discovered in 1911. It was David Riazanov, the outstanding director of the Marx-Engels Institute, who found them. Yet the letters remained unpublished until 1923; not surprisingly, in a Soviet Union where a modernizing Marx was becoming something of a religion, this alternative vision of Marx generated little enthusiasm.

Caribbean Anarchism

Despite having little access to the writing of the Last Marx, Marxists in Latin America were forced early on to reckon with the revolutionary potential of their own communitarian pasts, and the emancipatory potential of historical memory (perhaps because uneven development has made the past more accessible in that region). This holds true of Peru, as we have seen with Mariátegui’s work, and it also pertains to Cuba, where the philosopher and historian Fernando Martínez Heredia argued that the Cuban revolution of 1959 had deep roots in nineteenth and early twentieth-century movements for emancipation. Similar claims are also being made in Venezuela. Venezuela’s prehistoric past is less known and less studied than the Andean civilization of the Incas or that of the Aztecs in what is today Mexico. Nevertheless, the decentralized and horizontally-structured Indigenous societies of pre-colonial Venezuela deserve careful attention, in part because they provide potential bases for a socialist future, and especially for the communal construction of a post-capitalist society. Or at least that is the argument of Venezuelan anthropologists Iraida Vargas and Mario Sanoja.

Vargas and Sanoja work as a team and often publish together. Sanoja, who is almost a decade older, is best known for his research into agrarian practices in the north of South America. That research is summarized in a small book called People of Corn and People of Yucca (1977), which highlights the importance of vegeculture, the cultivation of roots rather than grains, in shaping prehistoric Indigenous communities in much of what is today Venezuela. To write the book, Sanoja had to cast off the yoke of what could be facetiously called “Mexican cultural hegemony,” as expressed in the idea that Latin Americans are essentially people of corn. The problem with that idea is that it underplays the critical role of vegeculture, not only of potatoes in the Andes but of yucca in what is much of Venezuela and Brazil. Yucca is a crop that requires relatively little attention, allows for long-term storage in the ground, and, in its bitter form, is highly imperishable. Its cultivation went hand in hand with a specific kind of social formation: decentralized and mostly horizontal, with only temporary leaderships. Sanoja called these formations, “autarkic and politically independent” – in short, they were anarchists!

For anyone who has lived some time in Venezuela, it is easy to believe the formative influence of this Indigenous past – characterized by horizontality and independence – on current society. Venezuelans’ complex attitude toward their leaders, Hugo Chávez included, to whom they pay allegiance to carry out specific tasks but at the same time treat with gratifying familiarity most of the time (as just one person among many in the collective) is one example. Then there are the collective egalitarian labor practices, cayapas, that are assumed with great enthusiasm and can be intense, lasting for days. Finally, the overall rhythm of life in the country is still mediated by cycles of struggle and festival, accompanied by a conception of time that is by no means linear and empty, but rather molded by underlying patterns of ritual.

A Very Long Revolution

Though their intellectual trajectory dates back well into the twentieth century, Vargas and Sanoja are both enthusiastic Chavistas. Hence, when the late Hugo Chávez proposed the communal path to socialism in 2009, they began to scour the country’s prehistoric and historic past for precedents to the project of communal socialism. The couple is profoundly influenced by historians of the French Annales school, who gave importance to the sociological dimensions of history and employed the perspective of the longue durée. This intellectual training makes them especially well equipped to chart the relevance of Venezuela’s past, as it survives in everyday culture, to the work of building the future. With a nod to Maoism, they titled their resulting work, The Long March toward Communal Society: Theses on Bolivarian Socialism (2017). The book has two main themes. On the one hand, it looks at how the “hidden nation,” made up of impoverished masses, has pushed forward an emancipatory project for more than two centuries (issuing into the Bolivarian revolution today). On the other hand, it addresses how Venezuela’s socialist project today can be based on communitarian traditions derived from diverse practices and attitudes still persisting in the society.

This may seem an excessively general argument, but it cashes out into some specific, concrete claims about regions and projects in Venezuela. For example, the authors point out how in central-western Lara state, where some of Venezuela’s most important communes exist today, there was once a huge Indigenous society that had developed proto-state structures and wide-ranging territorial control. These were the Caquetia, and part of their legacy consists of deep-rooted communitarian traditions, including a vast system of cooperatives of weavers and pottery makers which exchanged their goods in the zone. For Sanoja and Vargas, it is easy to draw a line from that past civilization to the communal present in the region, where strong community organizations such as Ataroa and El Maizal figure prominently. If this appears to be a radical form of historical telescoping, the argument is nevertheless backed up by the existence of enduring production practices, aimed at satisfying the society’s necessities, which the researcher pair calls the “true social cement that in the last instance supports the revolutionary or counterrevolutionary imaginary of social collectives.”

Another very concrete example of how their argument plays out is found in the 23 de Enero barrio of Caracas, where combative organizations such as La Piedrita, Alexis Vive (El Panal Commune), and Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, are flourishing. Vargas and Sanoja argue that the communitarian traditions which persist in the barrio are derived from the largely Afro-Venezuelan populations that settled there some 70 years ago. For example, 23 de Enero is a barrio wherein many sectors the police do not enter, but the order is maintained by armed community organizations. Or again, the Catholic religious festivals there show distinctly Afro influences, while functioning to maintain community cohesion and sometimes even promote revolutionary ideology. In recent decades, even the social peace imposed by local gangs has begun to take on a socialist character, with their leaders assuming revolutionary positions.

History from Below

Another important theoretical influence on the anthropologist couple is English Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, who figures in their bibliographies along with Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel of the Annales school. That is because Vargas and Sanoja’s work connects with Thompson’s thesis that the working masses are not a passive product of the capitalist productive apparatus, which spits out a generic bourgeoisie on one end and a generic proletariat on the other, but rather these masses produce themselves as a class, projecting futures and even new forms of societal organization. The actually-existing working classes aspire to civilizational projects that are usually cobbled together from elements of the known – that is, from old social forms and collective memory – but even so contain an emancipatory dimension because the values they express were developed over time as part of the culture of the oppressed.

In the Venezuelan case, there is a 500-year-old history of resistance to class and (neo)colonial oppression. Rebellions of the most diverse kind have taken place, even before the independence wars against the Spanish metropolis set off an ongoing class struggle that persists up to the present. This much is well-traveled territory and investigated by many anthropologists and historians. However, what Vargas and Sanoja wish to highlight is that these early rebellions were not merely spontaneous actions but rather rich in programmatic content. For example, some of the slave revolts aspired to create kingdoms that had a decidedly utopian dimension, envisioning multicultural coexistence with Creole settlers, whereas other projects were more Jacobin, inspired by the Haitian revolution. Also of great relevance were the nineteenth-century mass movements, most notably the one led by Ezekiel Zamora, that took the European idea of federalism and in a paradoxical way filled it with an anti-oligarchical content. Insofar as these diverse historical struggles continue to shape Venezuelan society, Vargas and Sanoja are able to bring a novel perspective to the circles of Chavista intellectuality. Their view, inspired by the tradition of popular historiography, is that the Bolivarian Revolution is the culmination of a series of struggles reaching back almost half a millennium in the region.

The Once and Future Commune

Vargas and Sanoja’s basic idea is that any given society, far from being a tabula rasa, is a rich palimpsest containing many elements from the living past. In Aló Presidente Teórico 1, Chávez opened a whole new epoch of socialist construction in Venezuela with his assertion that the commune is “the space in which socialism will be born.” The anthropologist couple agrees. However, they also want to show that the spaces of Venezuelan society are not abstract, but instead concrete and traversed by diverse cultural codes and traditional patterns of behavior. The country’s social fabric contains practices of communitarian coexistence, varied forms of social solidarity, and above all many surviving expressions of egalitarian social relations. This vision transcends the micro-level. In their charting of Venezuelan society, Vargas and Sanoja appeal to Henri Lefebvre’s idea that people produce space through social relations, concluding that there exists a complex “geometry of power” in the region, which has to be understood and adapted in the process of building socialism.

Like most supporters of Venezuela’s communal movement, Vargas and Sanoja believe that the socialist future in Venezuela should consist in a network of communities that cooperatively produce to satisfy their own needs, and share their surplus with other organized communities, through a widening web of solidarious, non-market relations. That vision is not strictly anti-statist, but rather posits the Venezuelan state as initially coexisting in a dialectical relation with a plurality of self-organized communities; later, as the transition process advances, the state will be transcended or surpassed by the forces of communal organization. It is surely a positive sign that this vision coincides with Marx’s overall conceptualization of communist society as consisting of communities of “freely associated producers” and is clearly underpinned by the German theorist’s most mature theoretical analyses. Since these latter locate social domination in the whole gamut of capitalism’s historically-specific forms, the upshot is that emancipation requires abolishing not just surplus labor and exploitation (as communist movements maintained in the twentieth century) but also the commodity form, wages, and proletarian labor in general.

Romantic or “back-to-the-future” theses about socialist construction – and this holds true whether they are advanced by Mariátegui, Martínez Heredia, or Vargas and Sanoja – always raise a number of questions related to their specificity and hence their range of application. If Vargas and Sanoja are right, the building of the commune in Venezuela should be greatly facilitated by the persistence of a communal past in features of the country’s present-day society. Such an approach may be quite convincing in a country whose uneven development means that references to the “spirits of the savannah” figure not infrequently in the political discourse, to say nothing of how Simón Bolívar and his cohorts populate the quotidian imagination. But what about the rest of the world, lacking in these particularities and without these holdovers? In effect, the thesis leaves open the question of how socialist construction should proceed in regions poorer in community traditions, with fewer holdovers from the past. What will their way of overcoming the totality of capitalist relations look like? Another way of phrasing the same question is: How much of the socialist commune, as it is conceived in Venezuela today, is particular to that concrete situation, and how much of it is relevant to the universal project of socialist construction?

Though the relation between the universal and the particular in the Venezuelan case may be difficult to hash out, a preliminary answer is sure that some form of community production is needed for socialist construction – communities are, after all, where directly social labor takes place, if that means labor that is not mediated by the market but by conscious and collective decision-making. However, the exact nature of the new social form, and whether it is shaped by holdovers from the past, will depend on the circumstances. The general claim is the need to have freely-associated producers abolish the commodity form and the whole gamut of social relations that derive from it. In particular circumstances, the living past may be invoked in this effort, and in Venezuela, Vargas and Sanoja have shown that holdovers from the past will play not only a useful but even a necessary role in the construction of a post-capitalist society.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela and co-author of Venezuela, the Present as Struggle: Voices from the Bolivarian Revolution.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.