Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual Marquina look at the Venezuelan communes as a key force in an extended process of national liberation and social emancipation.
By Venezuelanalysis – Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual Marquina
Jan 24, 2023
In the world at large, the fact that a group of ordinary people comes together in some remote part of Venezuela to democratically determine their production and their way of living in a commune could seem to be completely unimportant. In the eyes of most who shape public opinion, this would be a quintessential nonevent. To be sure, it is never news. Nevertheless, if there were such a thing as a revolutionary news agency, the formation of such a commune and its advances would be the stuff of front-page articles, with banner headlines such as EXTRA! A NEW COMMUNE IS FORMED! or COMMUNARDS TAKE THE NEXT STEP!
What makes communes and their advances so important? To explain their significance, one has to appeal to something that is not immediately visible: social relations and especially relations of production. In our society today, because it is a capitalist one, a set of abstract economic categories governs the economy and society. Proof of that can be seen in the earnestness with which people consult the business section of a newspaper, encountering there highly abstract numbers and statistics that cause them to act and feel differently, even entering depression or euphoria. Similarly, no one would think twice about snatching a 100-dollar bill, which is in the end just a piece of paper, from a filthy puddle. Then there is the labor process: untold numbers of people dedicate hours to making stuff, including terrible bombs or harmful advertising, that they have no interest in but do so because “it’s a job” and they get a salary for it.
At the center of this abstract, even mysterious capitalist system and the puzzling behaviors it induces – imagine explaining to an extraterrestrial why a rich person gets depressed on seeing the Dow Jones plunge! – is value production. In our society, we make most things not for their usefulness but because they can be sold, and sold with profit. In Marxism, this phenomenon is known as the dominance of exchange-value over use-value. Its effects are literally earth-changing. The character of what is produced is no longer important as long as it generates profit, while the quantities produced are never enough, since profits must always be increased. The result is both immense human suffering and mounting environmental disaster. In the capital system, most human beings are transformed into mere generators of economic value, while non-value generating care and domestic work is underrecognized, and the natural environment is converted into a mere resource to be endlessly exploited.
It is precisely for these reasons that, when people come together and decide to work and relate to each other, not based on economic value and profits, but in the name of satisfying their real needs – that is, for the sake of life and not capital – as is happening currently in Venezuela, then it is an occurrence of world-historical importance. There may be no headline and it may sound like a mere whisper but, to appeal to the terms of Tracy Chapman’s song, it is a revolutionary whisper. That is because a commune’s shift to producing for real needs and use-values, not for an anonymous market, and with democratic control of its own production, spells the beginning of a profound transformation that could completely change the world, allowing for both unprecedented human flourishing and planetary survival.
Emergence of the Communal Project
Commune-building began in Venezuela as part of the extended process of national liberation and social emancipation known as the Bolivarian Process. That process began officially in 1999, when a political outsider called Hugo Chávez took power through elections with a project whose guiding principles were “participative and protagonistic democracy.” The Bolivarian Process’s search for social emancipation through massified forms of democratic participation led to a series of ongoing, highly-creative experiments with models of popular organization, including community councils and cooperatives.
As the Bolivarian Process unfolded over time, it declared itself to be anti-imperialist in 2004 and socialist in 2006. In 2009, after self-critical reflection on the vicissitudes and limitations of the political process so far, the project’s strategy was adjusted to be socialism based on the commune as its basic cell. One year after Chávez made a declaration to this effect, a set of revolutionary laws were put in place that gave a legal framework for communal construction, but by then people had already begun to build communes in a few places, such as El Panal Commune in Caracas1 and El Maizal Commune in Lara2 state. In a short time, the country was full of hopeful, fledgling communal projects.
As laid out both in Chávez’s discourses and the new laws, the communes were to be built by joining community councils, essentially grassroots forms of local government, under the umbrella figure of the commune. The communes had the additional feature that, unlike community councils, they would also be economic entities, holding means of production under collective, community control. It was as both economic and political entities, with grassroots democratic control of production, that Chávez conceived the communes as the basic cells of socialism: they were the sites where, as he said, “socialism was to be born” (see Aló Presidente No. 13).
Importantly, Venezuelan communes were not intended to be scattered, isolated, and wholly autonomous projects, but to form part of a comprehensive societal transition to socialism in which, through the communes’ progressive extension throughout the country, Venezuelan society would be transformed and even the state would eventually disappear. For this reason, Chávez went so far as to say that an isolated commune is actually “counter-revolutionary.” Each commune was a foothold for a new socialist logic that aimed to hegemonize the whole society.
Theory and Popular Tradition
The commune, as it is being developed in Venezuela, has important theoretical precedents, a key one being the epoch-making thought of Karl Marx, who called for a post-capitalist society based on “freely associated” production, and celebrated both the Paris Commune and the Russian peasant communes (obshchina or mir in Russian) as forms conducive to socialism. Another key influence on the Venezuelan communal project is the Hungarian Marxist philosopher István Mészáros,4 who juxtaposed the communal system and its democratic metabolism with capital’s hierarchical system. Mészáros, who was close to Chávez, carried out an extended reflection on the shortcomings of twentieth century socialism for its failure to overcome what he called the anti-democratic logic or metabolism of capital and replace it with the grassroots control of production that exists in communes.
However, communes in Venezuela do not come simply from a world of pure ideas and theory, nor should they be seen as descending from above. Many people will remember that Marx said that theory can change the world when it becomes a material force that grips the masses. That claim, made in 1843, is undoubtedly correct. However, Marx should have added that theory usually grips the masses because it connects with ideas, projects, and dreams they have developed themselves. This is what generally happens in revolutions, and it is certainly the case for the communal idea in Venezuela. That is because communes have a long history in the Venezuelan territory. On the one hand, the many Indigenous peoples – Arawaks, Caribs, and others – that inhabited this part of the “north of South America” were usually organized in classless, self-governed communities. On the other hand, as enslaved Africans rebelled and escaped they formed what Venezuelans call cumbes, egalitarian maroon communities, that were spread throughout the territory. These had their own governments, and they were frequently able to resist the advance of Spanish settler colonists.
This legacy of community organization is not part of some remote past in the country. It survives in some relatively autonomous Indigenous communities, but also in widespread material practices of solidarity and mutual aid that persist in both urban and rural contexts. To take just two examples, in Venezuela’s cities and towns people sometimes carry out cayapas, which are barn-raising-like collective labor processes, and they organize neighborhood sancochos or shared soup meals. Both traditions point to the survival of communitarian practices even in modern, mainstream Venezuelan culture. Along with this comes a strong commitment to values of solidarity, mutuality, and egalitarianism in the Venezuelan working class. All of this means that when the Bolivarian Process shifted toward the commune – a shift that became official in 2009 – it encountered a fertile ground. The communal project was seized on by the masses. It was an idea they recognized as continuous not only with their aims of social emancipation and independence, but it also coincided with a long-standing collective imaginary regarding the means for achieving those goals.
Life and Work in the Communes
The strength of this synthesis is borne out by the vibrancy with which communal construction is being carried out in the country today. Despite the importance of the legal framework and the official discourse from the government, Venezuelan communes are all about self-emancipation, about people being protagonists. This means, on the one hand, that successful communes will be quite varied in their make-up, reflecting creative solutions to the diverse problems and challenges of a given region of the country or specific community. On the other hand, it means that they usually represent an essentially proactive initiative taken from below, even if that grassroots impulse receives legitimation and sometimes material support from the state.
For example, in El Maizal Commune, a group of people, some of them former farmhands, jumpstarted their commune by occupying a farm where corn was grown and cattle raised, then set it to work producing food for themselves and their community. In the Che Guevara Commune5 in the foothills of the Andes, a long-standing coffee cooperative, built years earlier through the hard work of seasoned cadres who are mostly from Colombia, opted to formally become a commune after Chávez’s 2009 declaration. In El Panal Commune in Caracas, a highly combative revolutionary organization spurred the formation of a bakery, textile workshop, and later developed urban tilapia and pig farming projects under communal property relations. In Cinco Fortalezas Commune in Cumanacoa,6 a group of revolutionary women whose families had been day-laborers, led the project to seize a sugarcane hacienda and then struggled to obtain the means for sugar processing.
A commune’s main means of production – whether agricultural, industrial, or service-based – are under democratic control of the communards. This grassroots control is expressed most fully in the commune’s monthly assemblies, along with regular committee meetings to address everything from production to cultural activities and finances. Because there are no bosses and the work is self-organized in these communes, it is usually more pleasurable and always more meaningful than work when it is carried out under the antidemocratic domination of capital. Typically, people move among different tasks, thereby breaking down the routine and the technical division of labor that the capital system imposes. Along the way, they learn about the entire production process. A commune’s products may be consumed inside the community or they may be sold outside to generate a surplus, part of which goes back to production and part to social projects, such as women’s centers, free canteens, schools, care for the old and unwell, medical and funeral expenses, and so on.
Challenges and Solutions
Not everything is rosy in the country’s communes. Internal conflicts often emerge, as do contradictions with government officials and with neighbors who are not part of the project. Likewise, in a Venezuela that is under a cruel U.S. blockade, most communes are drastically short of resources. There are also problematic holdovers from the old society such as residues of personal interest, hierarchy, and machismo.
Still, the fact that people in the communes are working in non-alienated conditions, producing for themselves and their communities and not for an anonymous market, while participating in a movement directed toward building a better, sustainable, and just post-capitalist world, makes all the difference. The communes are viable starting points. They are small and imperfect, but they are solid in the sense that the new democratic social metabolism they embody – even if for now just in a microcosm – is capable of extending beyond the isolated commune to the whole society, while it opens a window on a better future that centers life in its rich manifestations and not capital accumulation.
To address the many challenges they face, communes in Venezuela pursue a number of strategies. These include political education and mística; coordination among communes; and a dialectical relation with state power. We will discuss each of these briefly in turn.
1. Political education and mística. The communes are inevitably prey to the centrifugal, conflictive nature of the capitalist society which they inherit and of course persists in Venezuelan society at large. However, education in revolutionary theory – knowing where one is going and where one comes from – when combined with internal democracy, can help to maintain the collaborative nature of the project, and help overcome many of the problems related to the transition to socialism. It is partly for this reason that many communes have developed educational initiatives: El Maizal has the Yordanis Rodríguez School, El Panal has the Pluriversidad Patria Grande, and Che Guevara commune regularly organizes political education workshops.
For its part, mística refers to cultural, even spiritual activities that serve to create community cohesion. These can include songs, rituals, and special spaces, or more broadly works of art such as murals and sculptures. This helps to develop a symbolic register that is especially important in as much as the communes are works in progress that are always imperfect. The symbolic register is a way of signaling that activities that may outwardly resemble those existing in the non-communal world are imbued with a new intentionality or new direction. Examples of mística in this broad sense are the mandala space in Cinco Fortalezas commune, the bust of Chávez under the saman tree in El Maizal commune, and the murals of revolutionary figures at the Che Guevara commune.
2. Coordination and unity. Venezuela’s functioning communes are scattered throughout the territory. This isolation makes them weaker in the face of the state and the overall capitalist economy that persists in the country. That, in turn, causes the communes to make many concessions to commodity production, and to be more easily infected by capitalist values and hierarchies. For this reason, numerous attempts have been introduced to link the communes, with a view both to sharing their products outside the capitalist market and incrementing their political power.
Some of these coordinating initiatives have emanated from the state, such as the Ministry of Commune’s project of forming Blocs of Communes in 2014 and its current effort to organize “communal economic circuits.” However, the most promising and ambitious of the endeavors to link and empower communes in the country is the Communard Union.7 This is a self-organized undertaking, officially launched in early 2022, that describes itself as “a unifying and integrating instrument.” The Communard Union has attempted to develop networks of exchange among communes and has organized workshops on leadership, communication, and feminism. Its aims are far-reaching and include building a federation of communes and replacing the current state with a “communal state.”
3. Relation with the state. Popular power in Venezuela, of which the communes are the latest and most powerful expression, has generally pursued a dialectical relation with state power during the more than two decades of the Bolivarian Process. This marks a significant difference from more radically autonomous movements such as contemporary Zapatismo in México that refuses participation in state politics. The efflorescence of popular power that has occurred during the course of the Bolivarian Process – arguably, emerging on a scale never before seen in Latin American history – speaks clearly for the merits of its dialectical approach to state power.
However, the current Venezuelan state, even if partly transformed, is not completely so. That means that the communes in Venezuela find themselves in an ongoing push and pull with state power. From the state, they seek not only legal protection and legitimation, but also resources and financing. This overall situation is a source of what is sometimes called, not without a significant dose of euphemism, “creative tensions.” The state rarely transfers significant political power or resources without struggle, which means that the communes find themselves, in turn, wooing, demanding, and sometimes shaming the state into delivering over a portion of its oil rents and other incomes for the project of socialist accumulation.
The Future of the Communes
Latin América is known all around the world for its revolutionary figures and movements. The Haitian, Mexican, Cuban, and Nicaraguan revolutions along with the Colombian insurgency have made the continent recognized worldwide for its history of heroically taking up arms against the most powerful of imperialist enemies – and sometimes even winning! This anti-imperialist, socially emancipatory current of struggle has continued in the wave of progressive processes that took shape in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Latin America’s revolutionary movements are often symbolized by their almost larger-than-life figures: Tupac Amaru II, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Emiliano Zapata, César Augusto Sandino, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez. However, a lesser known but even more important side of Latin American revolutionary processes has always been the construction of popular power – grassroots organization and empowerment – that buoyed up each one of these historic processes. That is to say, for every heroic and visible leader there were thousands, if not millions, of people who formed revolutionary committees, cordones industriales, ayllus, palenques, caracoles, and asambleas barriales – among the many expressions of popular power that were essential grassroots motors of these revolutions.
Now the communards in Venezuela are writing a new chapter in this ongoing effort of self-emancipation combined with anti-imperialist struggle. Their slogan “Commune or Nothing!” are words that one hears in the mouths of commune-builders all around the country. If that slogan is in clear continuity with Latin América’s tradition of popular power, it is also an expression of the crossroads facing humanity for which the communal path to socialism offers a cogent solution. That is because what the slogan expresses is that capital and commune are opposites, two completely contrary metabolisms. The one offers a chance to put people and nature at the center, while the other represents their subordination to a destructive mechanism of expanding value production that could soon make life on the planet impossible. In the face of the abyss that the nothing of capital holds before us, a large and growing movement has opted to build a sustainable, socialist future based on the commune. They invite you to do likewise!