Dario Azzellini, 2017, Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below

Review of three recent books on Venezuelan social movements (Interface)

There is much that is not known or understood about what is happening in Venezuela. Add to the mix, a mainstream media in the global north quite often inaccurate in its reports on Venezuela, and we will tend to have an incomplete picture. It is true that politics have been continuous and quite contentious in Venezuela for decades, and that many have fled Venezuela’s shores, but this does not mean that what has been occurring is without any support from Venezuelans. (...) 

In the longer volume Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below, Dario Azzellini launches into a discussion of different case studies from Venezuela. Like Maher, Azzellini describes the multiple tendencies and currents which came together within Chavismo in defense of the revolution’s polarized participatory protagonismo. Protagonismo is a term that Venezuelans use to signify that the poor do not just participate in the system, rather they are the engine that drives how the system is structured.

That what has been occurring in Venezuela is polarizing, cannot be disputed. What Chavistas dispute is whether polarization is the fault of Chavismo or the fault of the capitalism that has bled Venezuela during the twentieth and thus far throughout the twenty-first century. Chavistas yet describe what has been occurring in Venezuela as participatory protagonismo. Participation has been a claim that allows Venezuelans to specify the involvement of the poor in a system that had long excluded them.

Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela goes on to examine institutional structures that people utilize at their workplaces to induce worker control, including cooperatives, attempts at co-management, and companies that are communally managed whose purpose is not profit but sustenance (p, 169-177) and similar communal projects and thus Azzellini reveals much work has been done in Venezuela around the topic of social property (p.159-172). Other attempts at worker control documented by Azzellini include worker’s councils, recuperated companies, and even (state led) efforts of nationalization (p.178-242).

Azzellini highlights discussions about how to define concepts like the masses/people (p. 23-33), processes of constituent power (p. 33-51), and the difference between social movements and popular movements. Like Maher, Azzellini examines the two key institutional structures that Venezuelans had begun to utilize to great effect: community councils and communes.

If the political occurrences in Venezuela since 1989 are accurately described as a revolution, what does this experience tell us about what revolutions are? Trotsky’s adage that “revolutions are the direct interference of the masses in historic events” (Trotsky 2008 [1932/1961], p. xv) would indicate the necessity of a high level of mass participation in a revolution. I would argue that in Venezuela, this adage has been shaped into common sense. For further example of this concept of protagonismo: The return of the social revolutionary wave in Venezuela during the weekend of April 11, 2002, which led to the unprecedented, the return of a President from a civil and military led coup d’état, only being one of the many examples.

In the 1999 constitution, there was a broadening “conception of participation that, besides redefining political participation, encompasses social, economic, and cultural rights, with collective rights for specific groups” (Azzellini, p. 5). This form of participation is fully claimed by the Venezuelan masses, and wherein, in the view of the four authors, the Venezuelan masses have made this participation their foundation for a new Venezuela. Even with strong polarization throughout the country, as this review goes to print, I believe there is still strong unification behind the project of Chavismo.

One might argue that participation is not a sufficient threshold for a revolution, and Venezuela’s experiences are also cases in point. All four authors illustrate that the concept of protagonismo, as defined by Chavistas is the direct action, control, and initiative of the broadly defined poor in Venezuela, and this concept has been Venezuela’s strength, is central to the Bolivarian revolution, and is also a self-defined term expressed by Venezuelans to explain their situation.

Building the Commune contains a good description of the Communal Councils (CCs, also called Community Councils). “The building blocks for this new socialist democracy were the communal councils, established in a 2006 law” (Maher, p. 15). So, what are these institutions? According to Maher the CCs are “directly democratic and participatory institutions for local governance” (p. 15). Azzellini writes “The April 2006 law specified that CCs were to be autonomous bodies of popular power” (p. 96). He then quotes from the law itself:

"The communal councils in the constitutional framework of participatory and protagonistic democracy, are bodies of participation, articulation and integration between the various community organizations, social groups, and citizens, which permit the organized pueblo to exercise directly the detailed work of public policies and projects oriented to respond to the necessities and aspirations of the communities in the building of a society of equality and social justice" (Azzellini, p. 96).

The point is that through organization, and protagonismo, the people can be responsive to and resolve their own problems.

Maher notes these structures became very popular:

"These councils ...quickly numbered in the thousands as neighbours began to come together weekly to debate and discuss how to govern themselves. Whether in a dingy room adorned with little more than a poster or mural of Chávez or outside around a collective stew pot, the debates ranged from banal to engaging, from the local to the national and everything in between" (p. 15).

Azzellini’s numbers indicate that around June 2015 there were 44, 794 CCs (p. 94). We can see the importance of these structures, given that they are supposed to be working institutions (enabling communities to do projects based on need). They are thus predicated on empowering communities to make their own decisions. In addition, this decision-making process is based on the general assembly of the community.

Communes and Workers’ Control in Venezuela notes “The CCs skip over all the intermediate levels between central government and communities” (p. 97). As such, both “the mechanisms for their constitution, as well as the procedures for the formulation of projects and obtaining of resources, have been simple and fluid, with few bureaucratic mediations,” (Azzellini, p. 97).

In this regard, Azzellini reveals that what has begun is a process wherein “Many communities began to discuss their problems and needs, formulate their own solutions, and administer their projects. This strengthened the social networks and the culture of participation in the communities” (p. 97).

As working bodies, the CC’s must constantly study the conditions of the community, at every step along the way. Such social investigation is a key part of the process of formation and activity of CCs which have a specific role as problem-solvers for communities.

But it is not enough for the local to be organized into community councils: there needs to be an institutional structure that helps structure the cc’s beyond being local. Anacaona Marín, a member of the Chavista Alexis Vive Patriotic Force. This organization can be found in the Barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas, and Marín in an interview with Pascual Marquina and Gilbert, says: “The commune is the historical subject; the commune and its people, the comuneros, that is where the revolution really begins” (p. 32).

It is quite true that the Venezuelan state still needs to change quite drastically for the communities to fully gain control over their own lives. I too heard the same in my interviews with people involved in mass organizations during July 2018. I too found many people tell me that as M. Lía Grajales’, a member of “Surgentes Collective” part of the larger Chavista movement, argues in an interview with Pascual Marquina and Gilbert.

"The state is a disputed territory and [entering it] is necessary if we want to promote popular interests, but state power is not in any way the goal. In any effort to build popular power, there must be synergy between the bottom and the top” (p. 56).




Related Links: