Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela – Book Review

Reviewed: Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela, by George Cicciarello-Maher, Verso Books, 2016.

Venezuela’s kaleidoscopic political scene – a constant struggle which is often simplified in mainstream media – is articulated with clarity in Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela (Verso Books, 2016). Drawing upon historical episodes and the more recent forms of right-wing violence, political scientist and author George Cicciarello-Maher allows the reader to delve into a tangible Venezuela with a perspective that is conscious of political complexities and the historic importance of grassroots movements.

In a previous book, the author makes an important distinction between the late Hugo Chávez and the people, reversing the prevailing narrative which portrays the former leader as the sole protagonist of the Bolivarian Revolution. In Cicciarello-Maher’s new work, a key focus is the commune, which is intertwined with Chávez’s legacy and is manifested through the people’s will to participate in political discussion and economic development from below. By empowering the communes, Chávez ultimately helped continue Venezuela’s long struggle against neo-colonial rule and elitist violence.

In Building the Commune, Cicciarello-Maher points out that radical democracy, while channelled by Chávez through state policy, rests among the residents of the barrios, whose fight for geophysical space in the city is a natural reaction to dispossession by elites. The rewriting of the Venezuelan constitution in 1999 indicated a shift from rhetoric to action. As the author states, “It’s too easy, Chávez insisted, to simply call things socialist without changing their fundamental structure.”

Indeed, the theorizing of this “structure” is prevalent throughout the book, as the author skilfully portrays inconsistencies between the government’s intention and actual manifestation – the latter hindered by corruption and bureaucracy. Organizing the communes, therefore, was a logical step taken by Chávez’s government that attempted an inclusive and yet autonomous approach toward barrios-based democracy. Cicciarello Maher quotes Chávez as stating, “The commune – popular power – does not come from Miraflores Palace, nor is it from such and such ministry that we will be able to solve our problems.”

With that admission, it is prudent to realize that organizing the communes is a continuation of the historical communes which fought colonial rule. The urban poor, despised by the Venezuelan elite, have brought the organisation of communities to an uncomfortable proximity to real political power. Caracas was divested of its capitalist and exclusionary prestige due to the Chávez government bringing the poor from the outskirts of the city into the city itself. This resulted in an elite segment of society becoming surrounded by barrios and low income families housed in areas associated with the rich.

Chávez’s death pushed difficult political and social realities into the fore with a violent haste. There are several important points that the author makes in the book with regard to the shift in right-wing violence, as well as the relevance of autonomous decision-making and radical democracy in the aftermath of Chávez’s death. Primarily, the right’s abhorrence for anything democratic did not extend to the tactic of incorporating “democratic” means of protest usually associated with the left in order to discredit Nicolas Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution. Secondly, the current instability renders the communes and their organization even more significant. It is clear that the case for communal participation and autonomy as articulated by Chávez is becoming not only important, but necessary, if the Bolivarian Revolution is to progress.

The author’s insight into counterrevolutionary tactics utilized by the Venezuelan right wing is excellently juxtaposed against the possible power of the communes. As Maduro faced increasing restrictions due to instability, which also resulted in radical voices being silenced, a trend emerged that once again revealed the deep roots of Venezuela’s history. Cicciarello-Maher states, “The 2014 protests were – and the Venezuelan opposition remains – prisoners of the segregated urban geography they themselves produced.” This observation goes a long way in demonstrating how the enforced incarceration of the poor through displacement and dispossession has resulted in the elite becoming ensconced within a territory and ideology marked by exclusion. At the same time, Chávez managed to provide the means through which exclusion of the poor was reversed. This is not to say that the communes have seamlessly managed to articulate a collective expression. The book refers to Chávez’s “Golpe de Timon” speech several times, making the point that the former leader considered “communal culture” to be of greater importance than the communes themselves. While each commune has differed in autonomy and aims, all retain a common ground which stems from the urban poor. This, according to the author, should form the basis of developing a collective autonomy at the local level, by strengthening the grassroots. There is permanence in communal culture that should be cultivated and consolidated, as it derives power from the present.

Another hurdle faced by communes is the development of grassroots organisation in relation to state dependency and competition for state funding. Given the importance of autonomy at the local level, state funding may prove to be a cause of dependency if the communes are entirely reliant upon the state rather than autonomous production. Not every commune is facing the same social circumstances: El Maizal has managed productivity and is considered the most successful commune. Others, such as the Pio Tamayo Commune, have prioritized political organization as the base from which to embark upon an economic project.

The common feature uniting communes is self-sustainability in a manner that reduces dependence upon the state. In Chávez’s era, the process embodied radical democracy while also challenging bureaucratic and corrupt elements within state institutions. The current political scenario has rendered communes even more relevant. The communal state, if managed efficiently, can compete directly against capitalism. Cicciarello-Maher ends the book with an important observation regarding Venezuela’s dilemma between capitalism and socialism. With hindsight, Chávez’s disposition towards the communes has put in motion what is possibly the biggest resistance against the neoliberal plans of the Venezuelan elite.

Ramona Wadi is a freelance journalist, analyst, book reviewer and blogger specializing in the Palestinian and Chilean struggle for memory, South America and international relations. Follow her @walzerscent