Building Socialism from Below: The Role of the Communes in Venezuela, an Interview with Antenea Jimenez, a former militant with the student movement who is now working with a national network of activists who are trying to build and strengthen the comunas
Published on The Bullet, by Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber, June 13, 2010.
… What is the main aim of the comunas?
The aims of the comunas are diverse, and take different forms. Before the comuna existed there were all kinds of community organizations where people would participate looking for solutions to their problems, their neighborhood association, the municipal government, etc. The goal of the comunas is to build on these processes and consolidate them by organizing on the basis of territory where people live.
For us the comuna is a territorial space, but also a political space where the aim is to build socialism on a permanent basis, where the people take charge of their own education and political formation. We teach about “convivencia” (living together well) and elaborate a plan for a particular territory. What is new about the process is that the people are also elaborating their own plan of formation.
The people are very creative; the most advanced work with the other neighbors in this process to create a permanent space of formation. Civil servants, working for the state, who went to these spaces, quickly learned that the people were elaborating their own plan by and for themselves.
Obviously some comunas are more advanced than other ones. It is much more difficult to build a comuna in urban areas, for example, because they have no experience with [different forms] of production; for example, they have no experience with [non-capitalist] social relations with the land. There is a dynamic in the city that is very capitalist. But in the rural areas they have conserved many elements of what is “ours,” from our ancestors, the indigenous communities, the Afro-Venezuelan communities. These values are still there. For this reason it is easier in the rural areas than in the urban areas. While there are fewer people in the countryside, the quality of the compañeros is very high. Sometimes there is not one person who did not vote for Chávez; this is less common in the urban areas … //
… What is the idea over the long term? Will the comunas continue to exist alongside the bourgeois state, or will they eventually replace it with new forms of self-governance?
This question makes me think because the revolutionary process has taken place through many kinds of organizations that got stuck on the path. The president mentioned once that the nucleus of endogenous development did not function well. The people often ask, “What kind of organization do we need, which is the adequate tool to help bring us what we want… a comuna, a cooperative?” And I explain what a cooperative is, a company of social property. The comuna is something else. We are doing everything to try to make sure that the comuna becomes the main instrument of social change because we are Marxists… it is the only way to build socialism, from below. In addition, in Venezuela there are historical experiences with comunas. This is our original form of organization. It is not strange for us. Of course, because of colonialism all of this changed. But the original form in “Our America” was this one. This is the political form through which people collectively governed their lives.
We have also seen other forms of socialism that were constructed by the state, like the Soviet Union. When that state collapsed, everything was destroyed. So, something happened there. Did the people really feel like they were a part of this process? There were some successes but people did not really feel part of it. The experience of all the revolutions of the past, in Russia, in Cuba, in the other countries of the South, show that if the people do not really participate, the bourgeois state simply continues. Such a conception of socialism is not viable, because the bourgeois state is not of the people. We are working now to build alternative systems, of solidarity exchange and barter. The idea is that the comuna also starts to run the community radio stations, the TV stations.
We are discussing how the comunas will be structured. What will be the relations of forces, which powers will the comunas be in charge of – judicial, executive, etc. All that exists now is the assembly for debate. But authentically socialist comuna does not yet exist; we are still constructing the comunas. We are in comuna when we govern ourselves, when we do not need a judge to tell us, “This house is not yours.” Or let’s say you live in a neighborhood and you need a letter that proves your place of residence. You have to go to an institution that says this. The comuna could do this. Your neighbor can verify where you live.
Capitalism created a layer of people who are the owners of peoples’ lives. If you do not have a residence card, there are many things that you can’t do. Why do we need resident cards? The bourgeois state has created this class of administrators that we do not need, who pretend they know things. The popular layers of community at the bottom have to wait until they solve the problems. But the comuna can do all of these things, decide all of these things. Before the Spanish came, this is how we lived. But it is a long process to raise the consciousness of the people so that they can take charge of their lives. It is also not an “anarchist thing” where anyone can do whatever they want. There are norms of living together that one has to respect. There are norms that regulate working life that also have to be respected. People have to respect these laws out of consciousness rather than because there is a law that represses them.
Ultimately, whether President Chávez is here or not, the process depends on the people. At the moment, the process as a whole is too dependent on the president. He is seen as the guarantee that this process will go forward, and for this reason the reactionaries want to get rid of him.
If another government replaces Chávez it may no longer be possible to meet politically in the streets. With the right-wing governments of the past, you only had to have a single book by Marx, Che Guevara, or Fidel Castro, to be persecuted. (full long interview text).
- [Susan Spronk teaches in the School of International Development and Global Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is a research associate with Municipal Services Project and has published several articles on class formation and water politics in Bolivia.
- Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics at the University of Regina. He is the author of Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Brill, 2010), and Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales (Haymarket, 2011)].