An Archipelagic Form of Sovereignty: Building the Venezuelan Communes



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.

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Communal Council in Santa Rosa (region of Lara). / Photo by Tamara Pearson (2010).

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.

At the same time, a major task of Venezuelan history (and all revolutionary history) is to grasp the relationship between the “from-above” and the “from-below,” the much longer history of grassroots participation. So communal councils established from above were built on the foundations laid by spontaneous grassroots revolutionary organizing in the 1980s and 1990s, and specifically what were called barrio assemblies. There’s a complexity here: something is always inevitably lost when popular power is incorporated from above. But at the same time it was an important step forward, and speaks to the broader question of the many sources of the commune and even what’s called the “communal state.” This was a phrase that Chávez introduced, and when he said Venezuela was moving toward the communal state, we need to be absolutely clear that what he meant was no more and no less than the disintegration of the centralized Venezuelan state and its replacement by a society of council power.

That was the vision and it remains for many the vision today, no matter how much it has been erased by events and by the conscious effort of some. But the phrase “communal state” was actually drawn from Kléber Ramírez Rojas — one of the most important guerrilla comandantes of the armed struggle in the 1970s, but who then collaborated with Chávez in underground clandestine organizing in the 1980s and 1990s. Ramírez was involved in Chávez’s failed 1992 coup which, had it been successful, would have established what he called a “communero society,” a confederated grassroots democracy of producers — in other words, a truly revolutionary communism.

LL: I think that was a fantastic prologue to everything we’re going to talk about. Perhaps we can now back up a little bit. Each of the communal experiences is very specific to the political context in which it emerges. Could you please tell us about the Venezuelan one, from its inception in 1989 to its realization in 2010? Of course Chávez is central to this context, but interestingly, besides him, the Venezuelan state seems to be more interested in controlling the Communes than really “betting on them” to use your words. Is that right?

GM: So in the in the most direct terms, the Bolivarian Revolution did not begin when Chávez was elected in 1998, or even when he tried to storm the gates of power in 1992, but a few years before that, in a mass rebellion against neoliberalism in 1989 known as the Caracazo. This was a mass revolt, a week-long riot, in which poor people took over the wealthy areas of the cities, scaring the shit out of elites and making it perfectly clear that things couldn’t go on as they were. But while the Caracazo represented the breaking point of Venezuelan history, we need to recognize that there were decades of organizing, decades of armed struggle that led to this point — even the concept of a “Bolivarian Revolution” was born from the armed struggle. It was this organizing and these demands that created Chávez, but the Caracazo was the moment that inaugurated the Bolivarian process by destroying the old political parties and creating a breach into which someone like Chávez could then step. Chávez was a soldier, but he was wearing two hats through his direct contact with the revolutionary underground, and during the uprising in 1989 many military recruits just like him were sent into the barrios to slaughter thousands who looked just like them. This is why his failed 1992 coup was initially scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of that mass popular revolt and the violent repression that quelled it.

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Insurgents flip over a bus at the Guarenas Terminal during the Caracazo revolts on February 27, 1989. / Photo by Jheremycg.

This point of no return and the space of possibility opened by the insurrection created the possibility for the rapid growth of the broader revolutionary movement, and a grassroots framework that was then picked up by radical organizers as a model for organizing. From the very beginning, there’s controversy over the role of the grassroots, and there are — in some senses, justifiably — different frameworks for understanding the transition to socialism. Bolivarian leadership has always been divided between those who truly trust the grassroots and those who see building socialism as more of a top down process, one that sees in the Cuban model the need to keep a very tight rein on revolutionary forces to seize and stabilize power. That dynamic and that tension persist today.

In Building the Commune, I tell the story of one of the most successful communes in central-west Venezuela called El Maizal, which produces tons of corn. El Maizal was born of a grassroots struggle to seize privately owned land that had fallen into disuse, demanding the government intervene and nationalize and communize it. But those ended up being two different steps. So Chávez initially intervened, showing up and giving a speech announcing that the lands would be nationalized. But what happened was they were simply taken over by the agricultural corporation and remained just as underused and under-productive as they were in private hands. So the revolutionary grassroots had to organize and struggle again, to demand that those lands be handed over directly to the communal parliament to be managed democratically. And so you have on the one hand, Chávez’s role as not the only but really the most crucial fulcrum for communal power within the state, but you also have a low scale war between the grassroots and party elites.

We shouldn’t overly simplify this or use it to wash away some of the very real tensions confronted by the Venezuelan revolution. But if you ask grassroots leaders at El Maizal, they would say, “Listen, so-called socialists are our biggest enemies in practice, we confront them every day, they don’t want our power to grow because it’s a threat to their power.” And so this tension continues up to the very present, and of course the past few years have been incredibly difficult. The communal project has been challenged, has been put on the back-foot, has seen dramatic funding cuts as a result of the economic crisis itself. But in the context of that crisis the communes have also seen a rollback, in the sense that some party elites want to embrace a pragmatic alliance with the private sector and with national capitalism as a path forward — that path has never worked.

And so I have been among those who really want to insist that the only path out of the economic crisis today is the path of the communes. It’s the only path that envisions forging a different kind of economy, that thinks about a Venezuela that is not fully dependent on oil extraction to fund imported goods, but instead thinks about what needs to be produced locally and how to produce those things democratically. And that resolves the tensions of the oil economy not by embracing the global economy or by cutting itself off from it, but by developing these grassroots democratic alternatives.

LL: You wrote that Venezuela is one the most urban countries in Latin America with over 93% of its population living in cities. A whole chapter of your book is dedicated to the forms of self organization of the barrios, including the skyscraper barrio that the Torre de David has embodied for several years — I’m sparing you my anger at Western architects for fetishizing it. But as you also write, the Communes mostly emerged in the countryside. These two aspects make me think of the way Marx himself was perceiving the project that the Paris Commune was supposed to embody with its neighboring rural communities. Could you please tell us about the relation about these two spaces?

GM: Absolutely, and of course I’d love to hear at some point your thoughts on reactionary architects, because there’s this sort of fascination not only with the appearance of the poor in the center of the city and the fear that that provokes, but also with the architect or urban planner as heroic savior. And that’s very much present in Venezuela and also in the fascination that Venezuela’s urban movements provoke elsewhere. But the question of space and territoriality is essential to not only grasping the Commune per se, but also grasping its particular manifestation in Venezuela and the project of Venezuelan socialism.

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Torre de David in Caracas’ financial district. The skyscraper under construction was never achieved and was the home of thousands of people for over a decade. / Photo by EneasMx (2017).

So when I talk about connecting the Paris Commune with these other communal experiences within this broad fabric, each requires its own historicization contextualization to allow us to think through the particular contours, parameters, and — crucially for Venezuela — spatiality. I’ve done this sort of analysis of the dialectics of urban space in Caracas, which is really just one key pressure point, or pressure cooker really, of a much broader process. I refer to the broader process of urbanization in Venezuela, as a direct result of the oil economy. Venezuela would have urbanized in the 20th century regardless, as many other Latin American countries did for similar reasons. But the discovery of oil over a century ago accelerated and amplified this process and the economic distortions it reflected and contributed to.

This had as much to do with government policy as anything else. For decades, a series of oil-fueled governments abandoned the countryside and the agricultural sector, providing no support whatsoever for rural campesinos. And as oil wealth pulled people toward the cities, they were also pushed off the land by the owners of large latifundios, with the government looking on passively when it wasn’t siding openly with the landowners. This urbanization proceeded apace in the 1960s and the 1970s, and the result was a country that produces a great deal of oil, which can be worth a great deal on the global market, but very little food and almost nothing else. This oil economy is completely designed around and embedded within the global market, and persists to this day.

At the very least, Chavismo arrived in power with a theory of the oil economy and took some steps to counteract it, even if these were a drop in the bucket. Interestingly enough, this theorization also developed within the armed struggle, as guerrilla intellectuals in the 1970s developed an alternative understanding of the oil economy and how to engage in what later came to be called “endogenous development” — using oil to fund economic development based on internal needs rather than the demands of the global economy. What this all means for the commune is a great deal of tension and contradiction.

On the one hand, a truly communal economy wouldn’t depend so heavily on the global market, and much less for something as destructive as oil. But it also involves the incredibly difficult task of reversing a century of territorial and demographic processes. It means redistributing the population spatially, reversing what Frantz Fanon, in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), called “urban macrocephaly,” and debunking “the myth of the capital.” And this is a specifically colonial model of development, right? The capital is the interface point for extracting resources and exporting them to the global economy. Rolling back this kind of process is incredibly difficult, which is why Chavismo has struggled to do so and why the neoliberal Venezuelan opposition today offers no alternative whatsoever to this pattern of development.

If you don’t grapple with this deep historical architecture of the Venezuelan economy, territory, and society, then you really can’t even begin to get to the heart of the problem. What this means in terms of building Venezuelan socialism is of course, complex as well. So in Building the Commune, I speak in terms of small islands of socialism spread all across Venezuela, about these small experiments, some some large, some small. This communal network is still but a small part of the economy as a whole, but the challenge is precisely to develop and extend threads to one another and to weave the broader fabric of a communal economy. So that you have communal axes, for example, especially in central-west Venezuela, producing coffee, plantains, and corn, and exchanging these directly with one another outside of the capitalist market.

In the history of socialist literature, there has been a great deal of conversation about the impossibility of small islands of socialism. And part of what I argued in Building the Commune is that, I mean, you can say that it’s impossible, but it’s also the reality of where we find ourselves. So how can we start to think spatially about weaving this communal fabric, connecting these disparate territories into a broader project that’s able to become a project of power?

LL: I’m very glad to hear you talking about islands because that has also been my favorite metaphor to talk about an alternative paradigm of sovereignty — very much influenced by Édouard Glissant’s vision of islands and the archipelago. It is the contention of this issue to think of the Commune as a different paradigm of sovereignty going through the intensities of governance in the reverse order than the one the nation state imposes. It goes from the neighborhood, to the municipality, to the province, to the nation, and perhaps even to the coalition of nations. Could you tell us how the Venezuela Communes embody this paradigm, and whether it could possibly be applicable in incremental ways that we could start in other contexts?

GM: Certainly, and I think that the point you’re making is a crucial one, which is that the idea that isolated islands of socialism is impossible was a reaction to socialism in one country, or to the Third World strategy of autarky — cutting oneself off entirely from global capitalism. But tragic as it may be, this is our starting point, and moreover once we grasp this reality it can also lead us to a very different vision for the commune, a vision for how communal power scales up. If I take your point, this is certainly true of the contemporary Venezuelan experience, but also of its history, and speaks to the decolonization of the commune I mentioned, which draws not only from Paris but seizes on local and indigenous sources and conc Maduro epts from across Latin America.

Specifically, the concept that many grassroots organizers are drawn to in Venezuela, comes from one of Simón Bolívar’s teachers, Simón Rodríguez, who spoke of what he called “toparchy” (la toparquía). Toparchy refers to the very same kind of small islands of what for Rodríguez was kind of republican sovereignty, or in fact a displacement of a centralized and colonial view of sovereignty based on the recognition that building states on the European model was going to be a disaster. In other words, there needed to develop in Venezuela some form of decentralized power, and this is precisely why people have picked up on this idea of toparchy. I visited a commune in southeast Caracas, where there was a small dog running around, and when I asked what the dog’s name was they said it was “El Topo.” Chávez, in his everyday ideological work, was incredibly effective at popularizing these kinds of ideas, turning profound political theoretical concepts into weapons of struggle and for rethinking how to build a new world, to the point that here you had this small little commune feeling inspired by the idea that, while maybe they are but one small island, they can also connect with something much larger.

In practice there have been attempts to do this, both from below and from above. From below, I can speak to the tireless work by grassroots organizers who themselves simply go around advising people on how to establish small socialist enterprises, how to connect these to a nearby commune, which maybe is a few miles away, or 20 miles away, how to trade or exchange their goods, and how to build themselves into this broader process. From above, it looked like the attempt to really establish a confederated structure of communes, so communes would elect state level communal assemblies, which would then elect and send representatives to what was called the Presidential Council, which would interface directly with president Nicolás Maduro.

This points to a longstanding tension, which is of course incredibly controversial for more liberal voices in Venezuela. This is the fact that the communal structure has existed outside of the liberal democratic apparatus, not only in terms of Chávez’s own direct intervention to expropriate property and help to establish communes, but also in the fact that these communes don’t answer to elected officials — or I should say, officials elected through the liberal democratic process: local mayors, state governors, or even the national government. But what appears as a contradiction for liberal democracy is in fact the whole fucking point when it comes to the communal project, which is not to work within liberal democracy and centralized state sovereignty, but to build something entirely different.

So in Venezuela you have two kinds of state and a conflict between two different visions of sovereignty. These sort of contaminate and interpenetrate one another, of course, since there’s participation built into the liberal democratic constitution of 1999 and also a sort of impotence and limitation that has never fully been overcome when it comes to these communal structures. They interface with Maduro, who was after all elected through the existing liberal democratic structure, but they’re not yet fully themselves. But at the very least, what we have is a living, breathing example of a war between two very different kinds of powers, something which I’ve conceptualized in the past in terms of Lenin’s concept of dual power, which was precisely a concept of the commune, if we think about it. But in Venezuela this has been an extended, drawn-out war of position that is raging today in Venezuela in an incredibly complex and painful way.

LL: We talked about production in the most literal sense, but one of your interviewee in your research told you that what also needed to be produced is the commune itself. This brought me back to Marx and his affirmation that the greatest achievement of the Paris Commune was its “actual working existence” itself. Could you address that?

GM: Certainly, and I think we need to understand how Marx himself was a product of these tensions. Here was someone who spent much of his life organizing and writing a critique of political economy, and then the Paris Commune happens, right? This has a huge impact on him, so when he says, for example, that the commune is “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor,” this is part of self criticism. He’s saying, “Listen, Paris showed us what we should have been doing, showed us a form, showed us a way to concretely organize and arrange society, that is communist. We who have been speaking of communism for so long had to discover this form through the practical activity of the class and its aspiration to self government.”

And I think this writ large is what we’re talking about in Venezuela, in these tensions, in these ways that different theories can be drawn in, but also in the way that practice is a huge part of the process. For example, at the same time that you had the Ministry of Communes attempting to establish a framework for what would count as a commune, to then count the communes and work to build them from above, you had activists who had been working in the ministry resigning to form a different kind of network of communes, in part because they felt that the definition should not come before the experience of the commune, and that the two need to exist in a far more dynamic relationship. I think these relationships between the theoretical and the practical and the from-above and the from-below are crucial and constant reminders of these dynamics.

Now, to your question. In Venezuela, precisely due to this colonial and extractivist history I discussed and its implications for geography and territory, one of the central questions is the question of production. There’s really no way around it. And all of the, let’s say, slightly more European anti-work theories are provocative and interesting, but they don’t help us to deal with the fact of what happens in an economy where there aren’t enough things being made. This puts Venezuela in a very different position when it comes to Marx’s conceptualization of the communism of the future as a communism of abundance and of the absence of scarcity. This is essential to the crisis that’s playing out in Venezuela today.

Many communes were established in the more radical Chavista barrios around the urban areas, which contains huge numbers of people but also importantly the political spearhead that brought Chavismo to power through mass rebellion. And yet these are territories where nothing is produced, territories that don’t make anything, and in which people live and circulate to work in the city — where often they aren’t producing anything, either, but working in services or simple distribution. By contrast, the communes that have been built in the countryside are far more productive. They produce what is necessary, and many even produce more than they need, so one of the tasks has been to create conveyor belts of political relationships and economic production that can connect these communal experiences in the cities and in the countryside.

But it also means thinking differently about production itself. Again, this only takes us so far in a country where things really do need to be made, where people really do need food, and where today there isn’t enough oil money to import enough for people to eat. But we also need to think about how, as the former communes minister Reinaldo Iturriza put it, the commune is also something that is produced. This is what Chávez called the spirit of the commune, a new way of being together. One of the examples I like to give is a small commune in southern Caracas founded by a bunch of young dudes in an area with no real economic production. The first concrete product of their commune, however, was a gang truce, something that’s very immaterial in some sense, but that allows for a different material relationship with the local territory and allows for a greater political consolidation of consciousness and power. This is what is being produced in neighborhoods that don’t concretely produce anything, but the tension of production remains at the very heart of the crisis today.

On the other hand, in its productive aspect, the commune remains the only possible solution to the contemporary and historical crisis of Venezuelan oil dependence. Even in the context of this crisis, and in some ways precisely because of the crisis, there’s really no alternative to the commune. Food imports have collapsed, and it’s an absolute humanitarian tragedy that has been amplified by Obama and Trump’s sanctions. Tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands, have died as a result of U.S. sanctions. But at the same time, the oil economy is no longer able to provide what people need and so communes have been stepping up to do what they can, developing alternative structures and alternative distribution networks. While this is not certainly not enough, and while we need to be fully dedicated to the task of lifting sanctions and allowing Venezuelans to breathe and to eat and to live as a precondition for them building this communal vision, the communes are also the solution to this economic crisis.

LL: As a concluding question I wanted to evoke the failed U.S.-backed coup from 2019. Right now, the Venezuelan state is still very centralized, which makes it vulnerable to this kind of imperial effort. Couldn’t we say that the communal state, in addition to embodying this alternative paradigm of sovereignty, is also a good defense mechanism against interventions like the U.S. one?

GM: Absolutely. On the one hand, Chavismo has always embraced what Lenin, in reference to the Paris Commune, called “the direct arming of the whole people” in the form of mass militias of the everyday people, which again were modeled on grassroots self-defense organizations. But on the other hand, these horizontal structures coexist with the traditional, vertical military hierarchy and chain of command. This coexistence of two visions of the military runs directly parallel to the political question of the coexistence of two states. But a while back an open debate broke out sparked by the retired general Alberto Müller Rojas, who sadly died a decade ago. What Müller Rojas was essentially insisting was that Chavismo means abolishing the traditional military hierarchy and arming the whole people as the best way to defend not only the revolutionary nature of the internal process — the communes against the state, as it were — but also against the external threat of foreign intervention and invasion.

And this is absolutely true. You have grassroots militias in the furthest reaches of what is an incredibly porous Colombian border that have been fighting for years against paramilitary infiltration and violence at the same time that they fight for local self-government. You have everyday people who are intervening to resist foreign invasion, as in the case of the U.S.-backed mercenaries who attempted a really ham-fisted invasion last year, hubristically named “Operation Gideon,” landing on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. Who caught them? Some fucking armed fishermen. Everyday people, revolutionary grassroots Chavistas. This speaks directly to the question of how we understand sovereignty, how we understand power. And it speaks to the question of communal power as a serious alternative, through which we can begin to build not only movements, but also different forms of local self government that are far more powerful than what exists today. ■