Venezuela’s Communal Movement

Stanfield Smith reviews George Ciccariello-Maher's latest book "Building the Commune," which theorises the construction of the communal state in Venezuela.


George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chavez, has come out with a short book on Venezuela, Building the Commune (Verso, 2016 Verso, 138 pp). Here the grassroots struggle  to build a new society, focusing on the cooperatives, the community councils, the communes, established to strengthen popular participatory democracy, is  keeping the Chavista revolution alive.

Venezuela’s Communal Movement

This communal movement began with the fight against neoliberalism’s anti-working class measures even before the Caracazo, the 1989 outburst against IMF imposed cuts resulting in the then government killing up to 2000 protesters. The later struggles against anti-neoliberal economics  in the 1990s eventually led to a series of anti-neoliberal governments taking power in South America,  where Chavez’ Venezuela led the way.

In Venezuela these struggles gave rise to popular local assemblies and neighborhood councils to meet community needs neglected by the government. In the Chavez era these became institutionalized as communal councils, participatory organizations for self-governance. “Sometimes a commune is sixty women gathered in a room to debate local road construction, berating political leaders in the harshest of terms. Other times it’s a textile collective gathering with local residents to decide what the community needs and how best to produce it. Sometimes it’s a handful of young men on motorcycles hammering out a gang truce, or others broadcasting on a collective radio or TV station. Often it’s hundreds of rural families growing plantains, cacao, coffee or 
corn while attempting to rebuild their ancestral dignity on the land through a new, collective form.” (19-20)

A grouping together of these councils became known as a commune. Presently 45,000 communal councils and 1500 communes organize hundreds of thousands of Venezuela’s 31 million people. Included in this network are the cooperatives, Enterprises of Social Production [EPS], either state-owned or operated directly by the communes themselves.

Above the communes lies their Communal Parliament, empowered to decide what communes produce and how it is distributed. According to the Commune Law, the Communal Parliament envisions integrating the communes into a regional and national federation, to construct “a system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property.” (21) However, this Parliament has only met once, right after the electoral defeat of the Chavistas in December 2015.

In 2002, Chavez gave peasants titles to land, and in the cities, urban land committees, CTUs [Comites de Tierras Urbanas], one of the first organs of grassroots self-organization. “By 2016, more than 650,000 titles to urban land had been granted through the CTUs, benefiting more than a million families.” (36)

Ciccariello-Maher says it is these colectivos (the communal system of councils, CTUs, production cooperatives, communal media) that are the backbone of the Bolivarian revolutionary process, pushing it forward. This does not mean any given colectivo is revolutionary, just as being a PSUV [Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela] member or leader does not mean they are strong defenders of the colectivo movement.

The chapter “Militias and Revolutionary Collectives” illustrates how the colectivos periodically run into conflict with the Bolivarian government. Yet, reflecting Ciccariello-Maher’s “revolution from below” vs “state from above” framework, he does not similarly point out the many ways the Maduro government works with the colectivos – as it does through the variety of  Social Missions  (such as community health care, housing, food, education).

“Counterrevolution” deals with the threat posed to the Chavista revolutionary movement by the racist white oligarchy. This force, whose political leaders include Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Machado, Enrique Capriles, is tied to the US rulers and to the rising violent right-wing resurgence in Latin America. Ciccariello-Maher discusses the often violent anti-Maduro guarimba movement’s ties to “former narco-president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe” (59) and other dangerous right-wing figures.  The US corporate media exaggerates the popularity of these anti-revolutionary Venezuelan leaders, as Ciccariello-Maher notes that during the 2014 guarimbas, barricades went up in only 19 of 335 municipalities nationwide. (58)

“The Commune in Progress” and “Culture and Production” present the workings of a number of communes and cooperatives, and the different ways people are organizing themselves. Even considering the book’s tendency to romanticize the communal system, they do offer an innovative contribution to the revolutionary reorganization of society.

However, this participatory communal “system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption rooted in social property” remains much more a utopian than actual socialist system. The reality of Venezuela today is that, excluding the production of oil, most essential goods are imported, and most of the production and distribution system remains firmly in private hands.  Moreover, while the capitalist class, in conjunction with the US, continues to sabotage the economy, this has not been combatted effectively by the Chavistas, even with the involvement of the existing communal system. Ciccariello-Maher does not say, but the communal system produces only a quite small part of the national GNP, and the Communal Parliament does not have any real power in governing the bourgeois state, headed by President Maduro and the National Assembly.

State “From Above” vs. People “From Below”

Running through Building the Commune is the outlook of “the state, from above” vs “the people, from below.” The communal society is said to be built “from below” not “from above.” In certain political-economic systems this above-below dichotomy makes sense, in others no. The state is not by nature an alien hostile power reigning over the people. Its relation to the people depends on in whose interests the state operates: for the owning elite, as in most of the world and most of history, or for the working masses and poor.

Is this dichotomy helpful when applied to Chavista Venezuela? Did the Bolivarian constitution, the Social Missions such as Barrio Adentro, the free medical program for all, the communal councils and the production cooperatives come “from above” or “from below”? They arose from the Chavez government working hand in hand with the people to make them a reality.  In fact, Hugo Chavez, head of state “from above,” in his last major speech, the Golpe de Timon, called for the “commune or nothing”. It was the “people from below” and the representatives of “the people from below” in power “from above” who institutionalized the social missions and communal system. There is no inherent polarity between the state and the people, and in fact the Bolivarian process advances when the two are working together.

While the Venezuelan state has been remodeled, it has not been fully recreated in their interests by those from below, and so in many ways they are in conflict with the state. This is one reason why “The underlying tension between a revolutionary movement that has taken power [the Chavista PSUV] and its most militant grassroots supporters remains unresolved.” (77) In the end, the above-below dichotomy obscures the essential question: whose class interests are represented by those above and below – the capitalists, the workers, the peasants, the intermediate layers.

Venezuela is still a capitalist country, with a capitalist state (134). The rich elite still wield decisive economic control, but not decisive political power.  Chavez and then the Chavista bloc of parties, the Gran Polo Patriotico, have repeatedly won elections, but must operate a government structure set up by the Venezuelan elite to keep down the masses.

In this set-up the communal system, the “communal state from below” has little national political power. Moreover, the Chavez and Maduro governments have not cleaned out non-Chavistas in the state ministries, bureaucracy, police and military forces. Many regional and local governments remain in the hands of the neoliberal opposition.

Nor is there a political party consisting of revolutionary Chavista activists. The PSUV itself is essentially a top down multi-class progressive electoral party, not centered in the working people. It includes workers and peasants and “bolibourgeoisie”; it includes those fighting to overthrow capitalist rule and those who limit the struggle to combatting neocolonialism and neoliberalism; it includes many careerists and opportunists. As a result the Venezuelan government and the PSUV do not operate directly in the interests of the collectives, the people, the Chavista base. It is both supportive and not supportive.

The Communal System in the Transition to Socialism

A key problem facing the hoped for 21st Century Socialism is that the growth of communal system will not to lead to socialism without a decisive struggle against the Venezuelan oligarchy. In that struggle it remains to be seen to what extent the Maduro government and military will side with the people organized in communes, given the government has so far avoided this decisive fight. For over a decade the Chavista party has ruled, and they have not dismantled and replaced the bourgeois state. If anything, they have grown comfortable operating within its framework. Consequently, after years of the PSUV in power and with the growth of the communal system, Venezuela still does not have a socialized economy.

In fact, despite the claims of some  21st Century Socialism theorists that it provides a participatory democratic socialist alternative to the bureaucratized Soviet state and party system, Venezuela has reproduced a bureaucratized state and party without the socialist economic foundation. Nevertheless, Venezuela and the ALBA bloc (including Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) have been leaders in the struggle against imperialism and neoliberalism, and have shown that a new world is possible and is being built.

The unanswered question facing advocates of 21st century socialism is the actual transition to socialism.  Ciccariello-Maher says “There is a popular government in a bourgeois state structure, on the other hand this expanding network of free territories is ‘building a new state’ from below.” (128) “Local neighborhood councils would have to connect with one another; they would have to send delegates to discuss and debate questions on a larger scale: how to govern entire parishes, how to collaborate on security and infrastructure, and how to cooperate in the production and distribution of what communities actually need.” (18) While that would be a step in the right direction, it would still do little to resolve the question of taking power.

“The goal [of the communal system] is self-government – and to eventually replace the state with an alternative political structure, of which the communes are building blocks.” (109)  A communal spokesperson explains, “We will advance toward the communal cities and then on to socialism throughout the entire homeland.” (126) Even if the communal system replaced many functions of the national state, which has not happened after more than a decade of Chavista rule, left unaddressed is the question of removing the oligarchy’s dominating economic power.  A measure of the weakness of the communal system is shown in its ineffectiveness in combating the US-oligarchy economic war.  Again, the unanswered question presents itself:  how does a collection of communes, production cooperatives, “socialist businesses” and “socialist factories” (111) and “socialist cities” somehow herald in a socialist revolution?

This communal system, “Venezuela’s distinctively territorialized socialism” (13) is not swallowing up and replacing the bourgeois state. Rather, this state is incorporating the communal system. We cannot think that a certain accumulation of communes and cooperatives is going to create socialism. The capitalist oligarchy can accommodate itself with the communal system, just as capitalism can live quite easily with a network of production cooperatives.

In 1866, Marx summarized in the Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council to the Geneva Convention of the International Workingmen’s Association:

a) We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperizing, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.

b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the cooperative system will never transform capitalist society. To convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and cooperative labour, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realised save by the transfer of the organised forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

Inside a capitalist economy all such quasi-socialist spaces must obey the laws of their capitalist national system.

21st Century Socialism bears a similarity with Edward Bernstein’s views on transitioning to socialism. He maintained that trade unions would herald in socialism by fighting to progressively raise wages, which would progressively cut capitalists’ profits, eventually reducing them to zero, thereby putting an end to capitalism. Similarly, in Venezuela, “socialist” spaces, the communal system, will slowly grow, eventually somehow squeezing and finally suffocating capitalist spaces. In both, the question of taking “the commanding heights of the economy” out of the hands of the owning elite, of destroying the old bourgeois state and replacing it with one directly representing the people, is avoided. No new state can be built “from below” by somehow slowly displacing the controlling present bourgeois state and the ruling capitalist class.

This issue hovers in the background of Building the Commune. Regardless, the book presents a short, excellent look Venezuela’s innovative communal system, a valuable tool in building a new revolutionary humane and participatory society.

Stansfield Smith, Chicago ALBA Solidarity Committee, recently returned from a SOA Watch, Task Force on the Americas delegation to Venezuela.