Venezuela’s Communes Form the Front Line of a Difficult Revolutionary Struggle

Tamara Pearson reviews George Ciccariello-Maher's new book Building the Commune on Venezuela's commune movement, the largely ignored frontline of the Bolivarian experiment in radical grassroots democracy. 


Building the Commune
By George Ciccariello-Maher
Verso Books, 2016

Every commune is different, George Ciccariello-Maher says in Building the Commune, but “the coffee is always too sweet, and the process is always difficult, endlessly messy and unpredictable in its inescapable creativity”.

The radical writer and author of 2013’s We Created Chavez could be describing the entire Venezuelan Revolution as well. Indeed, his latest book does just that — discussing the complexities of commune building, as well as the past and current forces at battle more broadly in Venezuela.

And as Venezuela’s right-wing parliament goes head to head with the pro-socialist government, and as the mainstream media cries yet again “dictatorship” — rushing to the defence of rich, US-raised elites — “messy” is becoming an understatement.

But the communes and communal councils are totally ignored and boycotted by the private media, even though they arguably form the most advanced front line of the revolution.

The communal councils are grassroots bodies based on local neighbourhoods involving a few hundred families. With popular assemblies as their highest decision making body, the councils take responsibility for key local programs and developments. Communes, made up of elected representatives from the councils, works on larger-scale projects over a greater area.

Venezuela’s ministry of communes says there are 46,566 registered communal councils in the country, and 1620 communes. Late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez called the communes the “building blocks” of a new revolutionary state.

This is why it is so useful that Ciccariello-Maher tracks their emergence from above and below. He documents their relationship with the state, examining the struggle for urban space and rural land, and describes their efforts to play a key role in production and distribution.

He sees the communes as a possible escape route from the “deepening economic crisis” and the “political gains” made in recent times by the right-wing opposition.

Those who follow Venezuela might want to skip the first few chapters and their well-told stories of oil and the Caracazo. Otherwise, Ciccariello-Maher’s writing is useful and utterly insightful. He draws out the broader lessons, such as the importance of judging a “movement” by its political context and goals rather than by its aesthetics, as has been the case with some coverage of the right-wing in Venezuela and its use of “protest”.

If I had one gripe, it would be that he is a little harsh on the gochos (the people of the Venezuelan Andes), who he compares to Trump supporters. In fact, many gochos are rural organisers and lower-class Chavista activists.

Ciccariello-Maher avoids the trap that much of the media falls into, whereby they filter Venezuela’s experiences through the eyes of a US resident. He draws on a vast collection of interviews with Venezuelans deeply involved in the commune movement, though his work could have used more female voices and sources.

The communes are too dispersed

People in Venezuela most naturally organise based on territory — in their rural or urban communities. Ciccariello-Maher emphasises the importance of the politics of housing in Venezuela — and the threat wealthy people have felt by the idea of poor people, many of African descent, living in the heart of Venezuela’s cities.

But many communal councils and communes have focused exclusively on their local territory, and coordination at state and national levels has often been more symbolic than meaningful. Further, in my experience the councils will often do much of the work, while the less radical governors take credit.

Ciccariello-Maher cites Venezuelan socialist and writer, Kleber Ramirez, who warned before he died in 1998 of a danger in dispersed assemblies: “Communal power, he argued, could not remain dispersed; it needed to unify into a broad horizon for national struggle, becoming in the process a power, an alternative.”

He also provides beautifully rendered, in-depth examinations of a few specific communes: El Maizal, Ataroa, and Sin Techos — each based in different parts of the country and facing different obstacles.

In that way, he brings theory and academic discussions to life, asking thought-provoking questions such as: How does a revolution work if people don’t produce (since most Venezuelans live in urban areas)? Would the councils serve as a check on the power of the central government?

What happens to a movement of the poor when the people are no longer poor? Can the communal state actually displace the existing state?

Communes are never finished

National commune organiser Gerardo Rojas tells Ciccariello-Maher that the commune is best understood as a kind of revolutionary myth that helps to mobilise the masses to “do the impossible and create something altogether new”.

For former commune minister Reinaldo Iturizza, one produces a commune just as much as goods and services. Human beings, societies, education, social care and culture are all created. To see ourselves in this way is to understand ourselves as sujetos — active in creating our community and society rather than passive inheritors of an unchangeable status quo.

In Mexico, where I am, people are also trying to build communities of many different types and sizes, though in an almost opposite political climate to Venezuela’s. Nevertheless, builders of alternative education that I’m working with are clear: a socially just and rich community is something that is constantly por darse — constantly and consciously worked on — rather than dado — a given that is left dormant, its members passive and disinterested.

Venezuela has faced battles and obstacles, one after the other, from within the revolution and from its enemies. It is as though it is being constantly punched.

There is nothing wonderful about the hardships people there are facing right now, nor about the risks of the revolution losing power. But one thing’s for sure — a revolution is por darse.

Tamara Pearson is a writer, journalist, and activist based in Latin America, whio lived and worked in Venezuela for number of years She is the author of a progressive literary novel, The Butterfly Prison.