Why has the Venezuelan experiment, which in the 2000’s was the primary source of interest for the global left, lost most of its shine today?
For some time socialist movements watched Bolivarian Venezuela, under the leadership of Chavez, with great interest. Among them, there were even those who tried to discover the laws of socialism in the 21st century from the Venezuelan experience – even though we yet stood at the very beginning of this century.1
Today, on the contrary, we witness a trend of cooling off and distancing from Venezuela. We witness a decline in attempts to access insider information, a dilution of the theoretical work on the originality of this experience, and an increase in the influence of American propaganda.
In this piece, we attempt to analyse why the Bolivarian process developed under the leadership of Hugo Chavez and after his untimely death, led by Nicolas Maduro, had entered an impasse.
Chavez’s last struggle
On January 11th, 2009, the largest theatre in Caracas, Teresa Carreño, was exceptionally crowded with people. From the presidential election up until this point, Hugo Chavez had been establishing direct connections and interaction with the people through a “Hello President” telephone programme. This time, Chavez was trying a new format: “Theoretical Hello President” (Aló Presidente Teórico). Hundreds of militants who had come from the organising of the Chavistas in communal councils came from across the country, excited to hear their Comandante speak. Chavez outlined his proposals for “communes” for the first time during this programme.
“The commune is the groundwork on which we first bring socialism to life, give birth to it. Seed by seed, stone by stone, we build a mountain.”2
The commune was above all a local organisation. Communal councils were to be established and united in a particular local living space. In the structure of every commune social production units were to be included. The communes would not be extensions of the governorships or ministries, but as people’s organisations would themselves shape history. The communes would be able to change the political geography of the country and establish communes without being caught in the given villages, towns, provinces or even the borders of the province (for example, two villages connected to two different townships to establish one commune) to form a new political geography of the country.
Chavez predicted that as the communes united, communal cities would be formed, these would evolve into a federation of communes, and ultimately would take the place of the old state apparatus. Socialism would not come with decrees, but by the path of people’s communes, “by a heroic act of creation”, from the base, it would be established by the people.
The strategy which Chavez formulated here was that of overturning the existing state and production relations by means of the commune, and ultimately establishment of a “Communal State”.
Chavez explained what communes were to the communal council organisers listening to him using excerpts taken from a book from China.3 Here Chavez contrasted his experience with the Chinese Revolution and came to the following conclusion:
“You know, the Chinese Revolutionaries came to power as a result of an armed revolution, and in practice started from zero. With us, it is not so; we came to power by very progressive means and we carry out our struggle with the enemy in a very different framework and within a very different historical context.”4
Could Chavez perhaps have been mistaken in this comparison? Could the Venezuelan Bolivarian “Revolution”, taking over the old state by means of elections, really started from a further point when compared with the socialist experiences of the 20th century which terminated the old state? Was the inheritance of the Venezuelan bourgeois state, with its’ enormous bureaucratic apparatus and its relations of oil rent filling all its pockets, the strength or the weakness of the Bolivarian “Revolution”?
“Let us suppose a governor, or for that matter, Chavez, gave a private company permission to construct a building on a given plot of land. How can Chavez do such a thing when we are here as a commune? Chavez, you can’t do this, you should send someone to speak with us first.
Don’t go against the state’s decisions, but you must also have the right to speak with regard to everything which affects society.”5
From this explanation of Chavez’s, we understand that communes are forbidden from “going against the state’s decisions”. So how can it be that the communes will take the place of the old state? Is such a conflict-free transfer of power possible?
Chavez’s call to the governors was as follows: “The governor will assume responsibility for transferring more powers to the commune.”6 Of course, the governors have never fulfilled these “responsibilities”! Because power is never given, it is taken. Yet the communes did not even have the right to “go against the state’s decisions”!
Chavez suggested in this meeting that “the year 2010 should be declared the year of the communes, and the first experiments in the communes should be completed by July”, and this proposal was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
However, by July’s “Theoretical Hello President 2”, Chavez made no mention of this decision. Because there was not yet a single commune. Here, Chavez has launched a sharp attack against the cooperatives which had up until that point constituted a foundation of economic policies. Because Bolivarian power had supported tens of thousands of cooperative projects over their ten years in power up until that point, but no socialist victory emerged therefrom.
“The cooperative is an interesting form, but it is no guarantor of socialism. There are many cooperatives which are purely capitalist and exploit others. Moreover, there are many bourgeois who dress themselves up as “cooperatives”, painting their faces as “cooperatives” and they avoid paying taxes. What they do is also exploitation.”7
Chavez, therefore, proposes a new concept: instead of the cooperative, the communitive!
“The communitives are in all cases communal enterprises… (communes) should possess communal enterprises, they must establish productive companies of that community, which must produce values for use in that community.”8
Thus, Chavez underlined that each commune would be a political-social organization that would combine the Communal Councils as the organs of people’s democracy with social enterprises as the organs of people’s production. The communes would serve as a kind of regional government.
Thus the Bolivarian state began to encourage the transformation of communal councils which it had supported with immense funds, especially using oil revenues, into Communes. (According to Chavez’s figures, $ 2.5 billion was transferred from the state budget to projects carried out through communal councils only in the year 2008).
On December 21, 2010, the Law of Communes came into effect. According to this law, each Commune would have the following organs:9
1. Commune assembly
2. Executive council
3. Steering Committees (for the direction of concrete social activities such as Water, Health, Waste, etc.)
4. Communal Planning Council
5. Communal Economic Council
6. Commune Bank
7. Communal Surveillance Council
The Commune Assembly, in particular, possesses critical importance for self-administration. It was predicted that all other organs of the Commune would be elected through the Commune Assembly. Relatives of local state administrators were forbidden from taking on the duties of Communal administration.
However, just as Chavez said, socialism does not come about by decrees or amending laws. Until the end of 2012, in practice, not a single commune was established. It was actually the state bureaucracy, who was effectively hindering the development of an independent initiative in that direction and breaking popular initiatives.
In fact, it was nothing more than a crude dream to predict that a given state apparatus would surrender its position to the communes peacefully, without any conflict, by means of organizing labouring people from below. The doctrine of Bolivarian Socialism has recently focused on a program of socialism to be constructed entirely through the communes. The ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) had (apparently) been mobilized entirely by this device. But there was something wrong, and the communes were not being built despite all the apparent efforts.
Chavez, in his last speech following the 2012 October presidential election, addressed the assembled cabinet which he had convened, dedicated all his time to this failure. Under the title “Change of Direction”, Chavez said: “…there are no communes to speak of. Where should we look for them, on the moon? Or on Jupiter?” Asking this in a mocking tone to the cabinet, he called on them to give a practical self-criticism, and then, addressing Vice President Maduro: “Nicolas, I entrust this duty to you”. Chavez, who was conscious of what was happening in his last days, gave his testament in this speech, saying “Either communes or nothing” (Comunas o nada).10
After four or so years had passed since Chavez declared his goal, the communal state was still on a mountaintop, obscured by mists, far from view. Obviously, no serious steps had yet been taken in this direction. Did Mao’s destruction of the old state still appear to Chavez as “starting from zero”? Noting his photocopying of Mao’s words on the subject of people’s communes and his distribution of them to all his ministers11, we can identify a growing sympathy for Mao in Chavez.
Back in 1949, however, Mao Zedung had not only destroyed the rotten state apparatus of Kuomintang. Together with the degeneration of the new revolutionary state, after 1966, he led the Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the masses of workers and peasants against the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party themselves. Instead of spreading photocopies of Mao’s words to the ministers, if Chavez made a similar call like that of Mao’s to the organized labouring people in the communal councils, saying “If necessary, don’t hesitate to bypass the governors”, presumably he could have seen many communes organized rapidly in many localities prior to his death.
Either communes or nothing
When Nicolas Maduro assumed Chavez’s responsibilities following the latter’s death, he employed the slogan “Either communes or nothing” in his election campaign. Indeed, this slogan of Chavez’s spread on the masses, and there was a huge increase in the number of communal councils and communes. According to the Commune Census of September 6, 2013, there were 1401 Communes, 40,035 Communal Councils and 28,791 Social Movements in the country.12
The year 2014 was a year of crisis, on the one hand, due to the rapid decline in world oil prices, the depreciation of the Venezuelan currency, the scarcity of imported agricultural products, and the escalation of street violence by the capitalist oligarchy. The counter-revolutionary storm that began in 2014 failed to demolish the Bolivarian government. But it did result in the dropping of Chavez’s roadmap to “the Communal State” from the agenda.
According to the Commune’s Ministry data, as of 2016 there were still 1620 communes and 46,566 communal councils.13 In other words, during the counter-revolutionary storms that have rocked Venezuela, communal councils and the communes arising from them have not dissipated, they have even somewhat grown. However, the Venezuelan state came under the absolute domination of the Chavista bureaucracy in those years.
This bureaucratic stratum carried and still carries out an open class war against the communes, trying to control them, strangling them and driving them down. For this reason, most communes have become “paper communes”. Even though they are present in official records, their existence on paper are not reflected in reality.
According to Angel Prado, the spokesperson for the El Maizal commune, who planted 800 hectares of corn on the south-west of the country, local Chavista leaders, and the PSUV organization are actively working to “extinguish the commune”, and they form the “main enemies” of the commune. “As communards, we have very little in common with the governing party,” says Prado.14
The new Minister of Culture and old Minister of the Communes of the Bolivarian government, Reinaldo López Iturriza, wrote a clear criticism of the Bolivarian movement in January 2016. He said:
“The fact that we have increasingly pulled back from the Communal Councils is an unmistakable sign of the bureaucratization of the Bolivarian revolution. Another unmistakable sign of the same phenomenon is the growing unease of the political bureaucracy at the fact that it cannot ‘control’ the communal councils.”15
Iturriza quotes the PSUV’s 3rd Congress in July 2014 as no longer saying that communal councils form the primary domain of revolutionary politics, and that communal councils have never been included in the Congress Declarations, and that the newly established Bolivar Chavez Units have been replaced in the place of them. Without a doubt, political bureaucracy, who had their hands freed by the early death of Chavez, have played an important role in these decisions. As so often happens, while the photos of the Leader remain in the store, his ideas are silently thrown out.16
It was not for nothing that Chavez said, “A governor must be the facilitator of the people’s power, not the one who steals the power of the people.”17
Briefly, during the Bolivarian Process, the new popular political forms, which were first elevated by Bolivarian circles and cooperatives, then by communal councils and finally communes, were not able to overthrow the bureaucratic superstructure of the state apparatus and become the dominant form, but on the contrary, under the pressure of the bourgeois state, they were fused with it.
The communal councils and communes did not rule the governors, but the governors constantly intervened in these democratic public bodies and ruled them from behind the scenes.
Hence, Chavez’s theory of a “communal state” did not emerge alive from the ‘acid’ of this experience.
On the other hand, the “communal economy” could not resist the economic sabotage of the US and groups representing local capital.
The economic construction of Bolivarian socialism also envisaged, like the construction of the communal state, a construction “from below” involving parallel structures without entering into open conflict with the dominant bourgeois class. Chávez argues that Marx’s scientific socialist methods, based on industrialized European countries, are unable to analyze an oil-based economy such as Venezuela’s. According to him, socialism in Venezuela would take the form of petro-socialism. The wealth of the country’s oil resources would be the basis for the establishment of the socialist industry.18
Chavez hoped to transcend capitalist production in this way, without clashing with the capitalist oligarchy. Whereas capital dominates as a form, does not leave room for other forms of ownership in the economy, but subordinates them to itself. Unless economic power is wrested from the hands of the bourgeoisie, and without socialist production prevailing in the commanding heights of the economy, we cannot speak of even socialist construction, let aside socialism.
Indeed, the private capitalist sector has profited from the Bolivarian Process. The share of the private sector in Venezuela’s GDP increased rapidly relative to the state sector in the years of growth: from 64.7% in 1998 to 70.9% in 2008.19 Today, the economy is still dominated by the capitalist private sector, although its share shrank slightly in the period of general economic contraction (66% in 2015). In the Venezuelan private sector, profit ratios rose from 11% in 1999 to an unprecedented 22% in 2008.20
However, as the expansionary movement of capital ceased and the contraction began in the global economy, there was a sharp decline in world oil prices. Thus, the theory of petro-socialism has proved to be wrong. The reason to this was the end of the relative abundance of resources generated by the oil industry. As the resources of the country were shrinking, a violent class struggle broke out on the sharing of these resources. The essence of the violence in the Venezuelan streets since 2014 was the question of how to distribute the shrinking oil revenues.
Under “normal” capitalist relations, when the economic crisis begins, social spendings are cut, wages are reduced, and the narrowing resources are spent primarily for the salvationof the bourgeoisie. When Maduro did the reverse, many initiatives were made to topple him via counter-revolutionary violence, including a coup d’etat attempt. The Maduro administration, which set aside 74% of the budget for social spending and increased the minimum wage three times in a year so that the crisis would not dissipate the income of the workers, enraged both US imperialism and the local capitalists! Bourgeois sabotage was the fuel to the fire of the 2014-16 economic crisis, which clearly demonstrated the impossibility of “peaceful coexistence” between private enterprise and communal economic forms of a pro-people government.
Moreover, the availability of state facilities and access to oil has transformed many Chavista bureaucrats into bourgeoises themselves. This segment, called the “Boli-bourgeoisie,” is itself a representative of capitalism within the Bolivarian movement. Chavista state bureaucrats and Boli-bourgeois confront Chavista labourers struggling to build town communes even before the capitalist class. Furthermore, there is no separate, actual, countrywide political party of the communards. The PSUV is a multi-class election party, particularly as its administration is dominated by Boli-bourgeoises and bureaucrats. Although its’ name is socialist, it is not a party which actually develops the class struggle, but one which impedes and strangles it.
Today, the communes are largely established in agricultural areas. There are also small scale, local needs-based communal industry enterprises in cities. The production of the means of production themselves through local communes cannot be considered. But the means of subsistence and the commune structures are also being developed at snail’s pace.
There can be no greater error than supposing that as the number of communes increases, socialism will dominate the economy. Just like the politics of supporting cooperatives launched since 2003, this alone will merely reproduce capitalism in a different form. Because capital, as a dominant economic relationship, can also incorporate different economic relations into itself. Just as the bourgeois state will not be able to be replaced by partial initiatives; the capitalist economy cannot be displaced by partially communal enterprises. Within a capitalist economy, state-owned factories also take part in capitalist relations. This is not socialist, but state-capitalist industry. The domination of capital can only be overthrown by socializing the means of production. By denying this, Chavez therefore rejected socialism itself.
As a writer rightfully observed; “In fact, despite the claims of some 21st Century Socialism theorists that it provides a participatory democratic socialist alternative to the bureaucratized Soviet state and party system, Venezuela has reproduced a bureaucratized state and party without the socialist economic foundation.”21
With the elections of the Constituent Assembly, the Bolivarian Movement has both renewed confidence in the masses and has taken legislative powers back from the monopolistic bourgeoisie.
Will the administration of Nicolas Maduro be able to realise the fears of the United States and monopoly capital in the United States, and create a constitution for the “communal state” and a “socialized economy” utilizing the Constituent Assembly? Is it possible to bring down political bureaucracy and private monopolies by making the constitutions of the communes the basis of state power? Will it be able to expropriate all strategic industries free of charge in order to remove the basis of economic sabotage? Or will the Bolivarian movement continue to revolve around contradictions it has faced for the past 18 years? We will all bear witness to the answer together.
1 For example, Mehmet Yılmazer, wrote the following: “In these countries there are three forms of ownership: State, social and private. … These three forms of ownership will co-exist in the socialism of the 21st century.” (Socialism of the 21st Century, Journal “Yol”, Issue 16, Spring 2009. Source: https://www.yolsiyasidergi.org/21-yuzyil-sosyalizmi-mehmet-yilmazer)
2 Hugo Chavez Frias, “Comunas, Propiedad y Socialismo”, Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación y la Información, Colección Cuadernos para el Debate, August 2010, Caracas, pg. 21. This text was derived from Chavez’s TV programs “Aló Presidente Teórico”, “número 1” and “número 2” dated respectively 11th January and 18th July 2009. You can watch the complete records of these programs from the following links: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUjfnetMbyM and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMb6uLM6Rgc
3 The book that Chavez read excerpts from was “What is Popular Commune?” written by Chu Li and Tien Chie-Yun on the year 1976. (Spanish edition: ¿Cómo es la comuna popular?, Chu Li-Tien y Chie-yun, Pekín, Ediciones en Lenguas Extranjeras, 1976)
11“Once I actually had Carmen Meléndez make, I don’t remember how many, copies of Mao Zedong’s writings on communes from his little red book, now I want to make 30 more copies to give, once again, to each minister. It seems as if no one ever read them since I never even received one page of commentary regarding them.” (Carmen Melendez, was the then Minister of Popular Power) (Same source mentioned above.)
16 Revolutionary Bolivar and Zamora Front made the following warnings in one of their declarations: “The country is not the same one that Chávez left us. There are continuities, particularly in terms of social policies: housing, for example. 1.5 million homes have been built in six years … But there have also been ruptures, in particular, the way in which politics is done, the thinking regarding how the people should be protagonists, the mechanisms of revolutionary democracy and the ethics of the leadership of the process, as well as the direction of the way forward.” Source: http://www.venezuelasolidarity.org/2017/03/10/revolutionary-bolivar-and-zamora-front-reviving-chavezs-politics-is-our-greatest-homage/
17 El socialismo del siglo XXI, Hugo Chávez Frías, Colección Cuadernos para el Debate Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Comunicación y la Información; Enero, 2011, Caracas, pg. 97.