In 2016, Geo Maher published a book entitled Building the Commune (Verso & Jacobin) that describes the last ten years of communal councils’ existence in Venezuela during Hugo Chávez’s presidency. Inspired both by the Paris Commune and Indigenous and Maroon praxes, the Venezuelan communes constitute a key example of the political formations we are trying to analyse throughout this issue.
Léopold Lambert: I would like to start this conversation by evoking the possible ties between the Venezuelan Communes and the Paris Commune — perhaps I should say the several communes that were initiated in 1871 in France and were meant to work together a bit like an archipelago. I know that there are probably more differences than common things, but I’m particularly thinking of the way these communes are fundamentally related to space, and in particular how they embody what you call “a territorial socialism.” Could you tell us more about this concept in relation to both space and time?
Geo Maher: That’s a great question, and I think framing it around the question of time and space is essential. The resonances of the Paris Commune in Latin America and in Venezuela were crucial. And yet, on some level, the same kind of displacement that’s required to grasp the Paris Commune itself, its trajectory, is required on a grander scale to think about communes across the world. Paris was not simply Paris; it was part of a broader archipelago of communal experiences: territorially, spatially, geographically. So we have to understand that the communal experience doesn’t have a single center, but many centers, many small islands of communal activity in the way that these are connected in historical, dialectical, territorial chains. And we need to grasp these prehistories, these tiny dialectics that generated the experience of the Paris Commune, and bound it to later experiences, and to Lenin and others theorizing what the commune means and looks like.
The same is true of Latin America in general and in Venezuela in particular. You can begin to look back from the Venezuelan experience of today, the history of the revolutionary communes, and see Paris as one reference point, but also Yugoslavia more recently, as well as many experiences that came long before the Paris Commune — long histories of indigenous communalism and Afro-Venezuelan cumbes, communal structures developed in runaway slave or Maroon communities. These all form part of a broader communal fabric, and methodologically speaking, we need to not only always understand these experiences in connection to one another, temporally and spatially, but we also need to decolonize this concept of the commune a bit, by which I mean, decentering Paris and grasping how these histories and trajectories existed in reality and continue to inspire what is a very complex but inspiring communal project today.
In Venezuela today, you have a still very overlooked experience of direct democratic community participation. On the one hand, these emerged from above, from projects developed by the state under President Hugo Chávez: first, what were called communal councils in the mid-2000s, and later, toward the end of the decade, what were more explicitly called communes. The communal councils were an instance of political participation on the community level, which allowed people to come together in their neighborhood and make directly democratic and binding decisions about development projects where they live. But while councils could request state funds for development projects, one limitation of the councils was that the political was still separated from the economic, and mediated by the state. In this sense, and beyond their larger scale, the breakthrough the communes represent was that along with bringing communal councils together, they also incorporated production through what are called social property enterprises. So in the communes, a communal parliament makes decisions about what the community needs, how to produce it, who’s going to work, how many hours they’re going to work, how much they’re going to be paid, and how to distribute the surplus within the community and reinvest it in community development. In other words, the communes are an attempt to create a truly democratic and socialist local economy and society, and as I said, one part of this push came from above.