Saturday, May 20, 2017

MY REVIEW OF THE BOOK “BUILDING THE COMMUNE” BY GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER


Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela
Ellner, Steve. NACLA Report on the Americas; New York 49 no. 1 (Spring 2017): 118-120.

Building the Commune is a provocative and superbly written book with a well-defined thesis. Ciccariello-Maher argues that given the deficiencies and underperformance of established institutions in Venezuela-including the country's governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV), the military, and the state's executive branch-the best hope for the political survival of the Chavista government and the achievement of its long-term socialist goals is the commune system. As the author succinctly states in the book's last paragraph: "The time has come to bet it all on the communes."
The communes were promoted by the government of Hugo Chavez through the Law of the Communes in 2010 in order to bring together adjoining community councils for the purpose of undertaking public works projects on a wider scale. The communes and community councils apply for state funding for projects, monitor their progress, and select their work force from members of the community. In addition, the communes are designed to encourage the formation of community enterprises known as "social production companies" (EPSs). For the Chavistas, the communes represent the germ of the new society they are trying to create.

The book's narrative about Venezuela's communes is rich in detail. Ciccariello-Maher provides a vivid account of the economic and cultural activities of various communes in both urban and non-urban areas. The economic and cultural focus is strengthened by conversations with Reinaldo Iturriza, who after heading the country's Communes Ministry, was appointed Minister of Culture in 2014. Communes described in the book include the El Maizal Commune in western Venezuela, whose agricultural output is allegedly twice the nation's average; the Ataroa Commune in Barquisimeto, which manages a cement block EPS and is committed to the "ethos of sustainability"; and the El Panal Commune in Caracas' famed 23 de Enero neighborhood, which runs a bakery, sugar-packaging plant, and supermarket.
Ciccariello-Maher writes in the tradition of bottomup historian E.P. Thompson, as can be deduced from the title of his previous book We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution, published in 2013. Ciccariello-Maher argues that the 2010 Law of the Communes served to "legally recognize''-and help consolidate and expand-the communes, but notes that the commune movement had emerged from the grassroots in previous years. The author presents several examples of this pattern of initiative and innovation from below-for example, the case of a group of neighbors in Caracas whose houses were destroyed by a landslide and who seized an abandoned building "before pressuring the government to expropriate it.''


Ciccariello-Maher ends the book pointing out that the mainstream press got it wrong when they predicted the demise of the Chavista revolution following the death of Hugo Chavez in 2013. Chavismo was never "a one-man show," he argues, and "to suggest otherwise is an insult to those who were building the revolution decades before Chavez, and...to those who continue to build revolutionary state power today." In this way, the author departs from orthodox Marxist thinking by defining socialism along political rather than economic lines. For Ciccariello-Maher, the essence of socialism in Venezuela is "radical democracy." Building the Commune says little, for instance, about the elimination of powerful monopolistic or semi-monopolistic economic groups-goals prioritized by the traditional Left. In accordance with the concept of "dual power" originally proposed by Lenin, Ciccariello-Maher envisions a new state that battles an old one. The former consists of communes and other institutions of direct popular participation underpinned by social movements, while the latter takes in representative institutions such as municipal and state governments. According to the author, himself a political theorist, the goal of twenty-first century socialism "was to transform political power itself." With regard to the economy, Ciccariello-Maher asserts that "production is only a means, not the end. The goal is self-government." Elsewhere, Ciccariello-Maher points out that for Chavez, what he called "communal culture" was the most important aspect of the commune.

An alternative view of the state put forward by Marta Harnecker and Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas is that the old state is not enemy territory but rather, in the words of Poulantzas, a "strategic battlefield." This is particularly true when progressives are in power. According to both writers, popular sectors establish an important presence in three arenas-the old state, emerging new state structures, and autonomous social movements-and it is in these spaces where they wage struggles that will determine the ultimate makeup of the state. As applied to Venezuela, this theory gives greater weight than does Ciccariello-Maher to the initiatives originating from above-specifically those emanating from the central government-in the transformation and radicalization of the nation since 1998, when Chavez was first elected to power. Numerous examples of the interplay of top-down and bottom-up initiatives are worth considering. One is the state's expropriation of the steel company Sidor in 2008 and the establishment of worker decision-making mechanisms known as the Plan Socialista de Guayana in this same industry the following year. More recently, the neighborhood food distribution program known as the Comites Locales de Abastecimiento y Produccion (Local Supply and Production Committees, CLAP) has shown itself to obey the same dynamic: a potentially far-reaching government measure that emerges in response to rank-and-file sentiment and pressure.
To be sure, Ciccariello-Maher recognizes the positive role of the state, but he does so in a more limited way. He correctly observes that government support invigorates popular organizations, but "if state funding becomes a substitute for grassroots organizing" it, in the words of scholar Andres Antillano, "'very quickly undermines [the]...very organization it helped to create."' In another break with orthodox Marxism that favors the prioritization of the commune, Ciccariello-Maher questions "traditional Marxist dogmas about the revolutionary working class." Rather than positing the fundamental importance of centers of production, namely factories, he praises the model of "Venezuela's distinctively territorialized socialism."

Ciccariello-Maher's upbeat account may be open to question, even while the developments he describes undoubtedly leave room for a degree of optimism. He claims that after Chavez's death in 2013 and under the direction of Communes Minister Iturriza, "there was a dramatic expansion of the communes," citing the official statistic that 1,546 communes exist in the country. But it is unclear how many of the communes approximate the productivity and sustainability of the ones he selected to describe in detail. A related issue is Ciccariello-Maher's rosy account of subjective conditions - that is, the degree to which people favor and are committed to the changes being proposed - and just how widespread the zeal of the communal members he interviews actually is. Admittedly, no easy measuring rod or quantitative methodology facilitates the evaluation of subjective conditions, but the issue is far from academic as it is central to any political strategy for change.
Even without such precision, Building the Commune represents an invaluable contribution to the analysis of twenty-first century Venezuelan politics from a critical leftist perspective and is original in its framing of key issues related to the future direction of the Chavista movement. Ciccariello-Maher's insights could not come at a better time given the corporate media's distortion of recent political developments that threaten the Chavistas' retention of power. Most important, the book clearly demonstrates two outstanding achievements of Chavista rule: the stimulation of popular participation and empowerment, both of which are downplayed-if not completely ignored-by the adversaries of the Venezuelan process of change.

Author Affiliation
Steve Ellner, a frequent NACLA contributor, is currently coordinating an issue of Latin American Perspectives titled "Progressive Governments and Class Strategies in Latin America: Populist and Pragmatic Policies in a Broader Context." His “Implications of Marxist State Theories and How They Play Out in Venezuela” is slated to appear in the next issue of Historical Materialism.


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