Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution

Too often, the Bolivarian Revolution currently underway in Venezuela
is dismissed by its critics—on the right and left—as a fundamentally
statist enterprise. These perspectives are erroneous, since
they cannot account for one of the most significant developments in Venezuela: the explosion of communal power.

By George Ciccariello-Maher - Monthly Review
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Too often, the Bolivarian Revolution currently underway in Venezuela
is dismissed by its critics—on the right and left—as a fundamentally
statist enterprise. We are told it is, at best, a continuation of the
corrupt, bureaucratic status quo or, at worst, a personalistic
consolidation of state power in the hands of a single individual at the
expense of those “checks and balances” traditionally associated with
western liberal democracies. These perspectives are erroneous, since
they cannot account for what have emerged as the central planks of the
revolutionary process. I will focus on the most significant of these
planks: the explosion of communal power.

By viewing the
process through the Leninist concept of “dual power”—that is, the
construction of an autonomous, alternative power capable of challenging
the existing state structure—we can see that the establishment of
communal councils in Venezuela is clearly a positive step toward the
development of fuller and deeper democracy, which is encouraging in and
of itself. But the councils’ significance goes beyond that. The
consolidation of communal power says much about the role of the state
in the Venezuelan Revolution. Specifically, what is unique about the
Venezuelan situation is the fact that sectors of the state are working
actively to dismantle and dissolve the old state apparatus by devolving
power to local organs capable of constituting a dual power.
Transcending the simplistic debate between taking or opposing state
power, a focus on dual power allows us to concentrate on what really
matters in Venezuela and elsewhere: the revolutionary transformation of
existing repressive structures.

‘An Entirely Different Kind of Power’

Lenin—standing at what he felt to be an unprecedented and unforeseeable
political crossroads—spoke of the emergence of “an entirely different
kind of power,” one fundamentally distinct from that of prevailing
bourgeois democracies.1 Alongside the Provisional Government of
Kerensky, an alternative government of Workers’ Soviets had emerged, a
dual power—or dvoevlastie—standing outside and against the
existing state structure. This still “weak and incipient” alternative
structure Lenin describes as “a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a
power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative
of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralized state power.”

What was it that made this power “entirely different”? According to
Lenin, this dual power was defined above all by its unique political
content, for which the clearest historical reference point was the 1871
Paris Commune.2

The fundamental characteristics of this type are:
(1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted
by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in
their local areas—direct “seizure,” to use a current expression;
(2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions
divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct
arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is
maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves;
(3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the
direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special
control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service,” whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.

As we will see, this concept can clearly be applied to Venezuela, but
to do so entails a double movement: it reveals some of the limitations
of the concept itself as originally formulated, and also alerts us to
some of the dangers confronting the revolutionary process in Venezuela.
By speaking in terms of dual power, the hope is that we might enrich
our understanding both of the concept itself and of the Bolivarian
Revolution.

The Explosion of Communal Power

In the aftermath of Chávez’s landslide electoral victory in December
2006, the Bolivarian Revolution has taken a radical turn. The enemies
of the process soundly defeated, the way has been cleared for the
deepening and radicalization of the process. Moreover, with six years
of leadership ahead of him, Chávez now enjoys a brief respite from the
demands of his “allies,” one which has allowed him to take serious
steps against those corrupt bureaucrats within the Chavista ranks who
would halt the revolutionary process. The program for this
radicalization has been described in terms of the “five motors” driving
the revolution, the fifth and most substantial of which is “the
explosion of communal power.” This refers to the expansion of local
communal councils and their authority throughout Venezuela, a process
which began with the 2006 Law on Communal Councils and which has taken
off in recent weeks and months.3 At present, there are an estimated
18,320 organized communal councils, and some 50,000 are expected by the
end of the year.4 

The committee that authored the Law on
Communal Councils was chaired by Communist Party member David
Velásquez—recently named Minister of Participation and Social
Development—who sees the councils as the basis for the revolutionary
transformation of the state, arguing that: “what is sought is to
transfer power and democracy to organized communities to such a degree
that the State apparatus would eventually be reduced to levels that it
becomes unnecessary.”5 But as we will see below, this view also differs
from Lenin’s understanding of dual power in that it has operated in
part through the legal system and the state apparatus. This difference
can be explained by the fact that Velásquez’s vision draws directly
upon Antonio Negri’s distinction between “constituent” and
“constituted” powers, a distinction which Chávez himself has cited on
several occasions and which emphasizes the constant need for the
intervention by the “constituent” masses in opposition to the sterility
of legality and the adherence to already-constituted structures.6 This
distinction—which does not dismiss constituted, institutional, or legal
power from the outset, but instead subjects that power to revocation by
the people—is much more useful for a discussion of dual power than a
homogeneous view of the state structure, and has arguably contributed
significantly (partly through Velásquez’s own intervention) to the
construction of a serious dual power in Venezuela whose ethical-legal
foundation is the constituent intervention of the masses.7

Considering the popularity of constituent power in Venezuela, it
shouldn’t surprise us to find that the role of law in contemporary
Venezuela is peculiar to say the least. The situation is what one might
call a “revolutionary reverence” for the law: not an a priori respect
for the law but rather an admiration derived from the experience of
revolutionary legislation imposed from below, and specifically the
organized defense of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution (a defense which
gave rise to the revolutionary base organizations known as Bolivarian
Circles). As the spokesperson for a communal council in the Naguanagua
sector of Valencia recently told me—Communal Council Law in hand—“we
can’t read the law like a reactionary lawyer, but instead, without
violating it, we need to make it fit our social reality in order to
restore the true protagonism to the people.” This radical view of the
law is, in fact, a manifestation of the Venezuelan emphasis on
constituent power: while it is necessary to make use of existing
constituted power (in this case, the law), one must never forget that
this constituted power relies fundamentally upon the constituent power that enacted it.

According to Article 2 of the 2006 law, communal councils are
“instances of participation, articulation, and integration between
various community organizations, social groups, and citizens,” the goal
of which is to “permit the organized people directly to manage public
policy and projects oriented toward responding to the needs and
aspirations of communities in the construction of a society of equity
and social justice.” These councils, moreover, are required to operate
according to criteria which include “mutual responsibility,
cooperation, solidarity, transparency, accountability, honesty,
efficacy, efficiency, social responsibility, social control, equity,
and social and gender equality” (Article 3), and are broadly empowered
to “adopt those decisions essential to life in the community” (Article
6). According to the law, councils are to be governed by way of
committees whose spokespersons are elected for a tenure of two years
(Article 12), and as with elections at other levels, mandates are
revocable (Article 6). 

The fiscal autonomy of the
communal councils is significant, despite the fact that most funding
comes—somewhat unavoidably in an oil-rich nation—via the central
government. Chávez has announced on several occasions that in the
future, a full 50 percent of the profits derived from the state-owned
petroleum company PDVSA—profits totaling more than $6 billion during
the first half of 2006—will be transferred directly to communal
councils. These funds had been previously directed toward state
governors and mayors, but will now be managed directly on the communal
level. Toward this end, 590 billion bolívares ($274 million) had
already been earmarked for 2,500 communal projects by February 15,
2007, and that figure has only been increasing since.8 So, too, has the
breadth of their specified competencies: in response to the recent
controversy over meat shortages caused by hoarding, a law was passed
giving power to the government to take over businesses engaged in
hoarding, and this law gives the same authority to communal councils.
While these remain but hints as to the future importance of the
councils, they are nevertheless encouraging ones. But what is the
relation between the nascent communal councils and the concept of dual
power outlined above?

Against Bureaucracy

To take Lenin’s criteria in reverse order, it should be pointed out that the explicit purpose of the councils is to subject the official bureaucracy to the will of the people expressed
through direct participation on the local level. While some tentative
and insufficient steps have been taken to attack corruption and
bureaucracy within the central government, the councils can
be seen as taking this fight to another level, both in the “social
oversight” authority they are granted over the central government and
in the transparent and egalitarian norms which govern their internal
operations. In terms of Lenin’s two criteria—revocable leadership and
the elimination of wage differentials—it is worth noting that revocable
mandates have been a central plank of the Bolivarian Revolution from
the beginning, and are enshrined in the 1999 Constitution.9 In terms of
wages, the Venezuelan government has begun to take steps to impose
ceilings on public sector wages: in January, the National
Assembly—citing the fact that some high court judges earn more than
twenty-eight million bolívares ($13,000) a month—began work on a law
that would limit salaries for government officials to six million
bolívares ($2,800) monthly.10

The capacity of the councils to attack bureaucracy and corruption begins with their capacity to supervise other levels of government: every council elects a five-person committee for “social oversight [contraloría]”
which in the words of Lenin, places bureaucrats “under special
control.” These committees are empowered to oversee “programs and
projects for public investment budgeted and executed by the national,
regional, or municipal government” (Article 11). This authority
represents a powerful weapon against the corrupt bureaucracies that
exist on the state and local level, and against those governors and
mayors whom many hope the councils will eventually replace entirely.
But this is far from certain, as Fernando—an organizer with the Simón
Bolívar Cultural Foundation in the historically revolutionary 23 de
Enero neighborhood and official promoter of Chávez’s nascent United
Socialist Party (PSUV)—expresses a common concern at this stage of the
formation of communal councils: “most mayors are playing too big a role
in the creation of communal councils, trying to control them. The role
of state officials should only be to provide information and facilitate
the councils.” 

There is also the hope that, in bypassing
these various levels of government bureaucracy, the councils will be
able to avoid or at least minimize the corruption that comes with the
transfer of funds from the national to the local level. “If a local
organization wants to request funding from the government,” Fernando
explains, “that money needs to pass through so many hands [e.g.
ministries, governors, and mayors] that corruption is inevitable. We
hope that the councils will eliminate or at least minimize the
possibility of corruption by establishing a direct link between funding
and the communities.” While he doubts that fiscal reliance on the state
as a whole will be eliminated in the near future—“How else,” he asks,
“can petroleum money reach the communities?”—his hope is that the
councils will reduce the possibility that the institutions involved
remain alienated from the people.

On the local level,
moreover, we find the second key element to the councils’ attack on
bureaucracy and corruption: direct democracy on the local level.
Turning again to Lenin’s emphasis on revocable mandates and limited
wages, committee members in communal councils are elected through the
direct participation of the community, for short terms (two years), and
can be revoked much easier than elected officials at higher levels.
When we get to the communal councils, moreover, remuneration has
disappeared entirely, and all elected posts are explicitly “ad honorem”
(Article 12). Whereas in the capacity of overseeing the central
government, the councils serve as a counterweight to the higher levels
of power. The directly democratic nature of participation in the
councils coupled with the non-remuneration of their elected leadership
militate against the corruption and bureaucratization of the councils
themselves, thereby making them a more stable and self-sufficient
reservoir of dual power. These are structures which simultaneously
prefigure a future participatory society while tentatively building
forces to attack those elements of the existing state which oppose that
transformation.

But the ability of the councils to live
up to this hope is far from guaranteed, and up the street at the
council election, Carlos Rodríguez—younger brother of one of 23 de
Enero’s most famous martyrs—while optimistic, insists that “only time
will tell whether the councils will be able to fulfill their function.”

An Armed Populace

Lenin’s second criterion for dual power—that of a directly armed populace—is
a more complicated question, since the communal councils are not armed
in any official sense. Rather, they must be considered in a broader
context, and the history of armed organizations outside and against the
state runs deep in Venezuela. Decades of rural and urban guerrilla
struggle in the pre-Chávez years have given way not to a
pacification and disarmament after his election, but rather to the
proliferation of networks of armed, local self-defense units
concentrated in the poorest parts of Venezuela. As merely one example,
we could mention the various groups concentrated in the 23 de Enero
sector of western Caracas, where decades of urban insurgency gave birth
to the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar (CSB), the Revolutionary Tupamaro
Movement, the Revolutionary Carapaica Movement–Néstor Zerpa Cartollini
Combat Unit, and the Colectivo Alexis Vive, just to name a few. Similar
organizations exist in the other large barrios of
Caracas—Petare, La Vega, El Valle, etc.—and throughout the country as a
whole, to which we could add the mysterious activities of the
decentralized Bolivarian Liberation Front which operates in rural
areas.

These groups have even on several occasions
received logistical support from national and local government
(especially current Metropolitan Mayor Juan Barreto), though this
support has not included arms as the opposition has often claimed.
This, moreover, has been a reciprocal relationship: when Chávez was
briefly overthrown in April 2002, several of his ministers were offered
safe haven in barrios like 23 de Enero and La Vega. So while
the space for armed self-defense on the local level has certainly
expanded and been encouraged as elected Chavistas have taken over the
various levels of the state apparatus, we should bear in mind that this
has been a slow and uneven process, both because Chavista hegemony is
only now becoming consolidated, but more importantly because, as a
revolutionary organizer who is currently working to facilitate local
preparations for asymmetrical warfare in the event of aggression
against Venezuela by the United States tells me: “Despite Chávez’s
pronouncements on the need for a citizens’ militia, many of those
within the structure still believe in the state’s need to maintain the
monopoly of violence.”

As was the case with the attack on bureaucracy and corruption, this tension emerges on two levels: both within formal
military structures (between the Armed Forces and the reserves) and
more importantly between those military (and police) structures and
local armed organizations. As to the first, I spoke recently with a
member of the National Reserve, who weighed in on the current
controversy over what relation the reserves should have to the official
Armed Forces. While the current inclusion of the reserves within the
Armed Forces might be interpreted as a recognition of the democratic
counter-power of militia organization, it is better interpreted as an
effort at co-optation and subordination. “The reserves shouldn’t be
part of the Armed Forces,” Victor tells me, “we should be invisible,
anonymous, waiting and ready to attack any aggressor without being
identified.”

This view is echoed by former commander of the
reserves and recently named Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel Briceño,
who argues that “the reserves should not be a component of the Armed
Forces” since they lack the rigid structure of the latter and “should
adopt the characteristics of a popular organization.”11 This force he
currently estimates at 880,000, with the long-term objective of 15 million reservists (i.e.
more than half the population). Rangel Briceño hopes that Chávez will
reform the 2005 reserve law to provide the force with full autonomy, in
which case the Venezuelan reserve might more closely approximate
Lenin’s notion of “the direct arming of the whole people” than any
force in recent history. This, at least, is Chávez’s own self-professed
objective: “The military reserve must be linked to popular
organization...the goal isn’t to have only reserve troops in the
battalions, no, it’s the people as a whole.”12

But no matter how popular and autonomous, a centralized reserve
structure would nevertheless maintain a degree of alienation from local
organs of dual power, and in this sense the communal councils reside in
a space between the reserves and local self-defense organizations which
rupture the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence.13 Even prior to
the establishment of the councils and in the absence of armed
self-defense organizations, a widely held distrust of the police  led
many communities to take measures to ensure local safety and security.
While the communal councils are not in any sense armed revolutionary
cadres (as was arguably the case with some of the Bolivarian Circles),
the call to decentralize power to the bases has extended to questions
of local self-defense and the establishment of local security and
defense committees. These “integral security committees” are enshrined
in the 2006 Communal Council Law (Article 9), but their existence was
largely theoretical until after the December 2006 election. In late
February of this year, reserve commander Rangel Briceño—also a member
of the presidential council for communal power—announced that the
government would be emphasizing the need to establish security and
defense committees in the communal councils, adding notably that,
“these will be oriented not only toward defense from external military
aggression, but as a point of internal security, in the carrying out of our daily tasks.”14

This internal security situation in the barrios was
explained to me by Rigoberto, who I met at around noon on the day of
the communal council elections for block five of 23 de Enero, at which
point he was already drinking cold Polar Negra and shots of rum. Given
that he was running for the security committee, perhaps it was lucky
that he was not elected (he came in fourth place, but insisted that he
had actually come in second). Despite his intoxicated state, Rigoberto
explained to me how security worked in the zone even prior to the
existence of the community council or security committee. “If we catch
someone dealing drugs in our neighborhood,” he tells me, “first they
get a warning. If they show up again, they get a beating. And if they
show up a third time....” He trails off, indicating with a hand gesture
that the outcome will not be pleasant. He also recounts a recent
situation in which members of the community caught a local malandro,
or criminal, robbing the Cuban doctor in the local Barrio Adentro
health module: an unarmed crowd of neighbors seized the man, beat him,
stripped him naked, and sent him on his way. While this sort of
autonomous, local self-management of security matters may seem
insignificant, it is a fundamental precondition for the deepening of
dual power in Venezuela, and while it didn’t begin with the councils
their empowerment in the area of security and defense promises to
contribute to it.

However important reserves may be as a
“direct arming of the whole people” in Lenin’s terms, we should recall
that the reason that Lenin advocated the “replacement of the police and
the army” is that these are “institutions divorced from the people and
set against the people.” While an autonomous militia might reduce this
alienation of security forces—and in this sense is certainly a positive
step—the true replacement of the army and the police requires a more
substantial break with the “monopoly of violence,” a decentralization
of coercive force that is more firmly rooted in local structures. Such
decentralized control over security matters has a long history in
Venezuela—from guerrilla armies to urban Tupamaros (a Maoist-type
self-defense organization)—and the communal councils have the potential
to continue and build upon this history.

‘We Created Him’

Given the central role of Chávez in the Venezuelan process, any
discussion of the Bolivarian Revolution in terms of dual power clearly
requires an adjustment of prevailing categories to account for Chávez’s
peculiar role as, in his own words, “a subversive in power.”15 This
need to adjust our concepts to accommodate Venezuelan reality is
perhaps best put by Oswaldo, a veteran of the Venezuelan guerrilla
struggle (himself no friend of constituted power). While agreeing that
the concept of dual power has much to contribute to an understanding of
the Venezuelan process, he nevertheless cautions that “we wouldn’t want
to compare Chávez to Kerensky.” This is more than mere piety toward a
leader: it demarcates the particular twist that the Venezuelan
experience introduces into the dual power framework.

This tension between concept and reality becomes most acute when we turn to Lenin’s third criterion: that dual power is not legislated, but rather directly seized from below.
While opposing dual power—the “direct initiative of the people from
below”—to “a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament” might
at first glance seem to objectively exclude the experience of
Venezuela’s communal councils (these were, after all, a legislative
creation), the reality is not so simple. This is because from the
beginning, the Bolivarian Revolution has been fundamentally driven from below,
and not in the pedestrian, electoral sense.16 For example, Chávez’s
1992 attempted coup—although unsuccessful—was in many ways a direct
result of the 1989 Caracazo riot, a massive and spontaneous
week-long popular rebellion which spread across the entire country in
response to neoliberal structural adjustment. As Juan Contreras, head
of the revolutionary Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, puts it: “Chávez
didn’t create the movements, we created him.”

The
importance of base-level organization, moreover, did not dissipate
after Chávez was elected in 1998. In the run-up to the 1999 referendum
approving the new Constitution, spontaneous reading groups formed with
the goal of studying, understanding, and later defending their new
Magna Carta. These reading groups would become the Bolivarian Circles,
revolutionary neighborhood organizations (and arguable predecessors to
the communal councils) which while fervently supporting Chávez and the
revolution have consistently resisted all efforts at formal
institutionalization. During the 2002 coup against Chávez, these same
Bolivarian Circles as well as other base organizations proved their
revolutionary dual power credentials as clearly as they had during the Caracazo:
first on April 11 on Llaguno Bridge, where armed Chavistas and members
of Bolivarian Circles battled the opposition-controlled Metropolitan
Police, holding them at bay for hours to protect unarmed crowds, and
later on April 13 when millions of Chavistas swarmed around Miraflores
Palace, Fort Tiuna in Caracas, and the Parachute Regiment in Maracay,
playing a key part in the military effort to oust the illegitimate
interim government and return Chávez to power.

Such
events are crucial moments in the history of Venezuelan dual power,
demonstrating the capacity of the populace to, in Lenin’s terms,
directly seize power from below. But this is not all they show: the
relationship between the 1989 Caracazo and the failed 1992
Chávez coup, and between the April 11, 2002, opposition coup against
Chávez and the April 13 popular insurgency that returned him to power
also indicate a complex top-bottom dialectic between Chávez and the
bases which has been a defining feature of the Venezuelan experience.
As a result, we find ourselves in the peculiar situation in which even
the most radically anti-state and anti-institutional segments of
popular base organizations recognize Chávez’s importance for the
process of building dual power.

This is perhaps clearest
in the Tupamaros, one of the most important dual power forces active in
Venezuela. In a 2003 manifesto, the Tupamaros attack those corrupt
party politicians who would “re-institutionalize the country,” thereby
maintaining the traditional structures of the bourgeois state.17 For
the Tupamaros, the revolutionary path is an explicitly
anti-institutional one: “The state and its networks, woven through
years of domination, do not allow reformist solutions.” Their goal is
instead “to encourage dual power by strengthening popular
participation, to link, organize, and multiply autonomous social
forces.” To this end, they propose communal councils composed of
workers and peasants which would represent a “local power that through
popular assemblies, without the institutional influence of any sort,
would be able to plan, orient, and execute the social force capable of
demystifying constituted power.” Here we see the Tupamaros linking the
building of dual power directly to communal councils, and doing so
precisely through a distinction between constituent and constituted
power.

This anti-institutionalist vision—emphasizing as it
does the harnessing of constituent power to build a viable dual power
alternative—does not exclude participation by those within the state
apparatus: for the Tupamaros, the line dividing revolutionaries from
reformists cuts across the state structure itself.
Specifically, the National Assembly (circa 2003) was seen as a
reformist talking-shop, the spearhead of the bourgeois offensive
against the revolution. Chávez, in contrast, falls on the side of the
revolutionary forces as a result of his “historical role,” that of “a
statesman dedicated to the voice of the people.” Despite being
surrounded by opportunists, the Tupamaros credit Chávez with “having
awakened the abandoned from their lethargy to put the people on the
offensive,” that is, Chávez is seen as having activated constituent power toward the construction of dual power. In order to counteract efforts by some sectors of Chavismo to
demobilize the population and thereby halt the revolution, the
Tupamaros even advocated that the president invoke constitutional
powers to dissolve the Assembly.

This seemingly paradoxical
effort to construct dual power in alliance with certain segments of the
state has also entered into Tupamaro strategy. In 2004 the electoral
wing of the Tupamaro movement supported Chavista mayoral candidate
Alexis Toledo in the state of Vargas, and upon being elected, Toledo
named Tupamaro leader José Pinto police chief of Vargas. To put this
development in perspective, we might compare it to Huey P. Newton being
put in charge of the Oakland Police Department, and while some
Tupamaros have expressed concern about entering into electoral
politics, few could argue that to have an anti-state revolutionary in
charge of the police represents a step backward in terms of the
construction of dual power in Venezuela.

Roland Denis has
expressed a similar vision of dual power animated by the intervention
of the constituent masses. Contemporary revolutionary movements, Denis
tells us, “now focus their attention on cultivating and extending
popular power through the permanent reanimation of the constituent
power of the people. The old slogan of ‘dual power’ (bourgeois and
working-class) valid for the summit of the revolutionary movement today
becomes a permanent strategy in accord with the need for the
organization of a socialized and non-state power.”18

He
proposes “governments of resistance” to carry out local administration
tasks, and in fact Denis claims that the councils themselves resulted
from a series of meetings held with popular organizations during his
short-lived stint as vice-minister of planning and development
following the 2002 coup.19 For Denis as for the Tupamaros, the communal
councils are central to a dual power strategy informed by constituent
power, and perhaps the best evidence of applying the concept of dual
power to the Venezuelan context lies in the fact that this proponent of
“non-state power” heads up an organization deemed the “April 13th
Movement,” named for the day that the Venezuelan masses showed their
true dual power credentials, invoking their authority as a constituent
power to return Chávez to his position within the structure of constituted power.

In an attempt to clarify Chávez’s peculiar role in the construction of
dual power in Venezuela, former Vice President José Vicente Rangel puts
it bluntly: “Chávez is anti-power; Chávez is the one that moves things,
within power and outside power. Why? Because Chávez is a man who has
decontextualized power, demystified it, brought it closer to the
people, managed to connect it with the common and everyday citizen.”20

Rangel also refers to this role as that of a “counterpower...exercised
outside of constituted power” and against that established structure.21
This, of course, is insufficient: Chávez is neither anti-power nor
counter-power. It is only the revolutionary base movements and the
nascent communal councils that merit such a title. But against many of
Chávez’s critics, we must recognize that the Venezuelan leader has
indeed contributed to this anti-power or counter-power—in short, to the construction of dual power—in a significant and decisive manner.

Dual Power and the State

In most contemporary debates regarding the Venezuelan Revolution, both
sides have remained mesmerized and thereby blinkered by an overly
simplistic view of the state as a homogeneous unit. The resulting
debate has been less than useful: must we change the world without taking power, or is it only by
taking power that we can indeed change the world?22 By concentrating on
the construction of dual power in Venezuela, we can avoid this naïve
debate by focusing on the more constructive question: that of
distinguishing between those forces working within-and-for the
perpetuation of the traditional state structure and those working
within-and-against that same structure, toward its dissolution.

Dual power situations are by definition unstable and ridden with
threats. Given the role that some sectors of the state apparatus have
played in fostering the construction of dual power in Venezuela, these
threats are all the more complex and difficult to discern. What is
clear is that the most fundamental of these threats is that the
communal councils will never manage to assert their autonomy from the
state. This will be all the more difficult given their current reliance
on oil income, and so the long-term process of endogenous local
economic development and the transition away from an oil-based economy
is of the utmost importance to the strengthening of communal power. But
since any significant transformation in the structure of the Venezuelan
economy is unlikely in the short term, what is more likely is that
Venezuelan revolutionary movements will continue to operate as they
have for decades: strategically, advancing where the enemy retreats,
gradually consolidating the communal councils as a viable dual power
force capable of competing with and radically transforming the existing
state structure.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a doctoral candidate in
political theory at UC Berkeley, who is writing a dissertation on
revolutionary subjectivity in Sorel, Negri, and Fanon. His work has
appeared or is forthcoming in Journal of Black Studies, Qui Parle,
Radical Philosophy Review, The Commoner, Human Architecture, and
Listening. He lives in Caracas, where he contributes to Counterpunch
and MRzine.

Notes
1.   This and subsequent references are drawn from V. I. Lenin, “The Dual Power,” Pravda, n. 28 (April 9, 1917), http://www.marx.org.
2.   Of course, Lenin also speaks of the class content of the Soviets, but this is not a criterion of any dual power per se.
Rather, it explains the Soviets’ antagonistic relation to the bourgeois
Provisional Government. It is a basic premise of my argument that dual
power can be constituted in geographical—and not necessarily
class—terms (although class is never absent, and often explains why certain
sectors oppose the existing state). For an insightful discussion of
Zapatista dual power which turns the concept explicitly toward
autonomous municipalities, see Christopher Day, “Dual Power in the
Selva Lacandon,” in R. San Filippo, ed., A New World in Our Hearts (Oakland: AK Press, 2003), 17–31.
3.   República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Asamblea Nacional, “Ley de los Consejos Comunales” (April 7, 2006).
4.   “Consejos comunales han sido una experiencia exitosa,” Últimas Noticias (April 7, 2007).
5.   El Nacional, January 12, 2007.
6.   Antonio Negri, Insurgencies,
trans. M. Boscagli (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999),
268–292. Here, Lenin appears as the high point in thinking about
constituent power in the Western tradition. See also Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution,
trans. C. Boudin (New York: Monthly Review, 2005), 41, where Chávez
recalls reading Negri while in prison following the failed 1992 coup.
7.   Despite being derived in some sense from Negri’s philosophy, in
what follows I will be more interested in how the concept of
constituent power is used in Venezuela than what it means for Negri. In
fact, once placed in its context, the Venezuelan understanding of
constituent power is arguably closer to Enrique Dussel’s formulation of
potentia against potestas,
which resists exaggerating the opposition between these two terms,
instead emphasizing the need to work toward a disalienation of
institutional structures and representation. See his 20 tesis de la política (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2006), forthcoming in English as 20 Theses on Politics, trans. G. Ciccariello-Maher.
8.   Asociación Bolivariana de Noticias, “Ejecutivo asignará más de Bs.
590 millardos para consejos comunales” (February 15, 2007).
9.   For Dussel, revocable mandates are the key to the radical nature
of the Venezuelan Revolution. See Articles 6, 70, and 72 of the
Bolivarian Constitution, as well as Dussel, 20 tesis,
147–49. Later this year, some 208 elected officials—from state
governors to municipal mayors—could be subject to recall, depending on
the capacity of their opponents to collect the requisite number
signatures.
10. “No más de 6 millones para altos funcionarios,” Panorama Digital (January 12, 2007).
11. Últimas Noticias (April 17, 2007).
12. Hugo Chávez Frías, ¡Aló Presidente! no. 216 (March 20, 2005).
13. In this sense, I disagree with Christopher Day’s conclusions in his
discussion of Zapatista dual power (“Dual Power in the Selva
Lacandon”). While Day can be credited with emphasizing the tensions
that emerge when military strategy is at issue, he seems to welcome the
monopoly of violence too readily.
14. Asociación Bolivariana de Noticias, “Consejos comunales se
incorporarán a comités de Seguridad y Defensa” (February 28, 2007).
15. Interview on José Vicente Hoy (March 4, 2007).
16. For a similar if less assertive argument, see Steve Ellner, “Las
estrategias ‘desde arriba’ y ‘desde abajo’ del movimiento de Hugo
Chávez,” Cuadernos del CENDES 23, no. 62 (May–August 2006), 73–93.
17. This and subsequent quotations drawn from Movimiento Revolucionario
Tupamaro, “Manifiesto del Movimiento Revolucionario Tupamaro al Pueblo
en General,” July 19, 2003.
18. Roland Denis, “Revolución vs. Gobierno (III): De la Izquierda
Social a la Izquierda Política,” Proyecto Nuestramérica-Movimiento 13
de Abril (August 11, 2006).
19. Mónica Bergos, “Es necesario ir más allá de la vigente Constitución bolivariana,” Periódico Diagonal 42
(November 23–December 4, 2007). Denis claims that his eventual removal
from the ministry was the result of a powerful reaction by conservative
sectors of the Venezuelan state and Chavista movement.
20. Eleazar Díaz Rangel, “José Vicente Rangel: ‘Chavéz es el antipoder,’” Últimas Noticias (February 11, 2007), 40–41.
21. José Vicente Rangel, “Contrapoder,” Últimas Noticias (April 16, 2007), 26.
22. See for example the recent “debate on power,” including thinkers
such as John Holloway, Hilary Wainwright, Tariq Ali, and Phil Hearse,
http://marxsite.com.

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