BAR Book Forum: Dario Azzellini’s “Communes and Workers' Control in Venezuela”

Millions of Venezuelans are building socialism from below, and most of them are Black, brown and female.

“The mainstream media, and even many people considering themselves leftists, cannot understand why the Maduro government is still in power.”

In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Dario Azzellini . Azzellini is a visiting fellow at the Latin American Studies Program, Cornell University. His book is Communes and Workers' Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below.

Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?

Dario Azzellini: The book counters the international, and especially US propaganda against Venezuela. It does not only counter the right-wing propaganda. It does also counter the focus of many leftists on government policies only. It shows that in Venezuela – beyond any critique you might have of government policies – there are millions of people on the ground building day by day socialism from below by building structures of self-government, planning according to their needs, taking over underperforming or abandoned land and companies from private owners and from state institutions. The mainstream media, and even many people considering themselves leftists, cannot understand why the Maduro government is still in power and could not be toppled by the economic and financial sanctions, terrorist attacks and political pressure set up by US imperialism, its ultra-right-wing allies in the region such as Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and the European Union. 

Many depict the Venezuelan government as maintaining power through repression. That is complete nonsense. If you want to understand why Maduro is still in power, why there isn’t a revolt against the government and why the US financed right wing extremists and white supremacists around self-proclaimed “president” Guaidó cannot mobilize a mass support from the popular sectors, you have to look at the rank and file I look at in my book. Despite all the critique and the conflicts they have with the government, institutions and bureaucrats, they don’t turn against the government. In the current situation it is the only option they see in order to be able to continue with what they are building. If they look at Colombia, a strong ally and supporter of Guiadò and the opposition, they can see how hundreds of social, political, ecological, indigenous and afro-Venezuelan activists and organizers have been killed by the military and their allies, the paramilitaries, since a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas was signed in 2016. Guaidó is allied with the narco-paramilitary gangs and the Colombian government. Recently pictures of Guaidó with narco-paramilitary leaders surfaced.

You can take any photo and you will see that the opposition is white and their representatives are mainly white men. But Venezuela’s barrios and rural regions are mainly black and brown, the popular culture of the majority of Venezuelans is Caribbean, and the majority organizing in on the ground are women.

What can common people expect from the opposition in Venezuela?

What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?

I have enormous respect for all the community activists and organizers all over the world. Many know much better than researchers and politicians how the hood works, what happens on the ground and what people are able to do. I have always been an activist-researcher, and that is also what I did in Venezuela, in barrios, communes and workplaces. Regarding all the activists and organizers reading the book, I hope that they are inspired by what Venezuelan communities are doing; that community activists and organizers learn from the Venezuelan experiences of self-organization and the construction of popular democratic structures based on participation, not on representation.

Capitalism and the bourgeoise society are based on divisions, division of spheres (economic, political, social), division between manual and intellectual labor, race, gender, etc. therefore many people have been systematically prevented from learning how to systematize and contextualize their knowledge. A revolutionary left has to offer the instruments and means to the people to do that and build their own present and future. The response lies in the collective power and creativity of the people.

I also want to show that we should never forget the “big picture.” When doing activism and organizing on the ground it is easy to get lost in individual problem solving. Obviously, it is important to solve problems. People don’t live off nice speeches. But we should always be aware that what we need is structural change, system change. This world is upside down. We have to put it on its feet again. For that we have to organize.

We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?

In my publications, films and activism I generally aim at dismantling capitalism, racism, patriarchy, imperialism and (neo)colonialism. Nevertheless, I don’t think that this book will convince “the enemy” of a people’s revolution – maybe it will reach some people that are not totally into socialist and movement policies and they will learn. So let’s be more detailed… I hope to dismantle the idea of a socialist transformation based only on institutions and change ordered from above; at the same time I also want to argue against the belief that transformation can happen by only organizing movements without taking the state. We need both, and at the same time it is complicated. The state is not an instrument of liberation and has to be overcome. If you don’t take it, it will crush you. When you take it the danger of adopting the state’s logic – which is not revolutionary – is constantly present. We need the people’s movements, self-organization, to counter the logic of the bourgeoise state. Only the people collectively have the creativity and capacity to create something new. 

I hope to show this creativity of the people, especially of the people that have been struggling and fighting for hundreds of years to organize their resistance, their survival. Practices and knowledge out of these experiences exists everywhere. But in the global North and in more privileged or more commodified societies it is more hidden than in the global South and marginalized communities. “I believe in the creative power of the people,” as Venezuelan poet Aquiles Nazoa once said in his wonderful poem Credo

Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?

My work is mainly inspired by the oppressed taking matters in their own hands and fighting for liberation and the emancipation of human kind. This includes many revolutions and rebellions, as peasants’ uprisings of the last 1000 years; anti-slavery struggles; Afro-American and indigenous uprisings against colonialism and occupation; the urban revolts all over the world; the communes (from Maroon towns - Quilombos, in Venezuela Cumbes –, and the Paris Commune, to the Kurdish local self-government, the Zapatistas, Venezuela etc.); workplace takeovers for workers control of the past 170 years and many more. The heroes for and in my book, Communes and Workers' Control in Venezuela: Building 21st Century Socialism from Below,  are without any doubt the millions of Venezuelans on the ground, in the barrios and in the workplaces. Especially the strong Venezuelan women in the barrios who decided to take matters in their own hands. Like in any revolutionary process women have more to win and are at the forefront of the struggles even if they are not at the center of attention. 

If you force me to do some namedropping (I usually hang on to the slogan “No more heroes anymore”), I would mention (in alphabetical order): Frantz Fanon, Karl Korsch, Rosa Luxemburg, José Carlos Mariátegui, Karl Marx, Doreen Massey, Istvan Mészáros … and I am sure I forgot many … forgive me. 

In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?

In showing a concrete example of large scale non-representative democracy and the construction of socialism from below. A communal system going back to the roots of the original socialist and communist idea. The egalitarian socialist and communist experiments and projects (and I include here popular experiences before the terms socialism and communism came up) were not based on one party and building a state. Socialism and communism in their origin are communal collective projects. It is the organization of life by the people without the division into a political, economic and social sphere, without the acceptance (without any logical reason) that some people govern and others are governed. At the same time this does not remain a locally limited experience, but levels of higher coordination are created. If the people are the sovereign, how do we build a system in which the sovereign can always intervene and produce fundamental change? Not like in liberal “democracies” that base their legitimacy on the sovereignty of the people but then the sovereign is not allowed to intervene anymore and change things. How can we imagine an economy that serves the people and not an economy that feeds on them, serves the interests of a few and destroys nature and humanity? How can we build socialism of the 21st Century? The efforts of Venezuelan people over the past two decades do not answer all these questions, much less with today’s crisis, but they offer inspiring insights and experiences into how to try it. 

Roberto Sirvent  is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network .   He is co-author, with fellow BAR 

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