The Commune is the Supreme Expression of Participatory Democracy

Cira Pascual Marquina  interviews Anacaona Marin of El Panal Commune

Cira Pascual Marquina interviews Anacaona Marin of El Panal Commune

[The Alexis Vive Patriotic Force, which has deep roots in 23 de Enero barrio (an area in a town that is inhabited by poor people) in Caracas (capital of Venezuela), began planning a commune years before Chavez even proposed the communal path toward socialism. Yet, when Chavez announced the plan to join communal councils into a higher form of organisation, Alexis Vive wholeheartedly embraced the initiative and has since then built a highly successful commune called El Panal Commune [1] involving some 13,000 people. We spoke with a key cadre of El Panal about this project that is both economic and political to find out how it is coping with the intense crisis created by US aggressions.]

 

Cira Pascual Marquina: The commune is usually thought of a space of construction—for the political and economic reorganisation of society—but it is also a space of resistance. Let’s talk about the commune today, in a period where Venezuela is under attack by imperialism.

 

Anacaona Marin: There is a confrontation of models, a clash of two paradigms not only in Venezuela and in Latin America, but also worldwide. One of the questions in the debate is: who is the historical subject? For us, this question means: who is it that takes the initiative, who lights up the field, who pushes changes ahead. And when we reflect on this issue, which means thinking about our own practice, we guide our interpretation by the proposal that Comandante Chavez advanced.

 

Chavez developed a hypothesis after a period of intense thought and experiment, after a rigorous analysis of the Venezuelan and continental realities, and after reflecting on the revolutionary potential of the people (based also on a commitment to justice for the poor that was there from the start). His hypothesis was: the commune is the historical subject, the commune and its people is where the revolution really begins. So we made this proposal ours, we committed ourselves to it.

 

When Chavez first raised the banner of socialism in 2006, when he said that the Bolivarian Revolution must be socialist, when he said that a vote for him is a vote for socialism, he committed himself and the people to a collective project of rupture with the past. And that is where we find the seed of the commune. Self-government and economic emancipation go hand-in-hand with socialism, with a people in power.

 

We were aware that the proposal and our embracing it was going to be attacked from the very beginning, even when it was only being proposed. At that time itself, it became clear to us that there was going to be a new level of confrontation. We knew that the path towards socialism was going to be demonised, that opposition would pop up everywhere, inside and outside. And that is precisely what happened. The communes hadn’t even been born yet, and we were already in struggle! And if we go deeper, the truth is that we have been resisting for more than five hundred years.

 

Today, we are not only resisting imperialism. We are also resisting old forms of production and their diverse forms of domination: from the organisation of education and its effects, to the organisation of the formal political sphere and the economy.

 

Why is there conflict? Because we are making a counter-hegemonic proposal to a system that is powerful, a system that seems part and parcel of what the human being is. In the face of this system, the communal being stands tall and says: Hey, this doesn’t have to be so, this is not the only option. The communal being resolutely affirms that capitalism is not a natural occurrence, it is an imposition.

 

The communes are counter-hegemonic spaces, they have a potential to be hegemonic themselves. From our commune, we aim to show that another organisation of society is possible, that power must be reorganised, that power should be in the hands of the people. That means combining new economic relations with an exercise of power in the commune’s territory.

 

CPM: Here we are in the midst of El Panal Commune, which has a range of productive projects: from a bakery and a textile factory to cultivated land and an industrial packaging plant. How is all this organised?

 

AM: El Panal Commune has some specific characteristics. We, as Alexis Vive, began thinking about building a commune in 2006, and soon after, we began working on it. However, the Law of Communes wasn’t promulgated until 2009. The law states that communal councils would be the embryo that would foster the formation of a commune. But by then, here in Alexis Vive, we had already begun evolving our own path of building a commune.

 

In our case, the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force generated a collective practice and a collective debate that pointed the path towards building the commune, helped along with Chavez’s ideas. The community here, in the central part of 23 de Enero barrio in Caracas, liked and agreed with the idea, and readily agreed to implement it. Since then, we have come a long way.

 

Here, in the territory of our commune, the “Panalitos por la Patria” (“Beehives for the Homeland”)—which are small discussion and work groups—are the DNA of the communal body. The Panalitos are formed by people from the community with a high degree of commitment to the commune. They are the engines of the communal initiative.

 

Additionally, we have “brigades”, which is a term that the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force chose after much debate. The debate was based around our study of the Chiliying Commune in China [2], which had various structures of participation for the people: councils, brigades and producers. The division there was based on a commitment to work and struggle. The brigades were made up of a militant group of communards with a lifelong commitment to the struggle. In our commune, these brigades are made up of professional cadres, and they take the responsiblity for the most important issues of production and distribution in the community. They are also very politically advanced units.

 

Finally, we have the associated work collectives, which are the communal groups directly involved with producing goods and services. Since the commune is not an appendix of the state or the government, it must be autonomous and it must generate the resources it requires to address the community’s needs. The associated work collectives are spaces for direct production, and the surplus from their production goes back to the commune and thus to the community.

 

This is how we organise the grassroots planning and administration of resources in our commune. Some of our resources go to sustaining a people’s canteen, some to communications, some to the community’s medical expenses, and some to transportation and infrastructure. We also have resources allotted for contingencies. All of these resources come from the associated work collectives. After all, the commune is not just a cultural, social and political organisation, it is also an economic organisation.

 

There is another “higher” element to the commune’s organisation: the patriotic assembly, the space where people of the commune gather to decide collectively what must be done and how, through participatory democracy.

 

CPM: Let’s come back to the situation today: the imperialist aggression. In the past couple of months, we have witnessed a new form of war with the attacks on the electric grid and the electrical blackout. Tell us about how you have organised resistance in the commune in this context.

 

AM: We are the daughters and sons of Chavez. We listened to his words and we learned. As a result of that, we understood that when you stand up against capital and against imperialism, there is only one option: be ready to fight. If we are going to tell imperialism that we are no longer its backyard—that we have chosen the path to full independence and on top of that we are moving towards socialism—then we must understand that we are going to be in a war with a military superpower.

 

A new phase of aggression against our country has begun. They try to restrict our access to food and they have implemented a financial blockade and, more recently, an oil embargo. They also attack us culturally. They try to instill fear in us. Most recently, they attacked our electrical system, which is fundamental for modern life.

 

We were aware that this was coming, so we prepared for a war economy, through organisation and work. We also prepared through research and by paying attention to popular creativity. A contingency plan was in place. So when this new phase of the aggression began, we were ready for it with the necessary resources.

 

Our planning allowed us to build—in the midst of the blackout—a diesel-powered electrical grid for our collective spaces. That alternative power supply considerably reduced the hardships we had to face, and also made for a less hostile environment during the blackout. You see, the commune acts as a kind of state or government in everyday life, and it does so also when faced with a contingency or an aggression.

 

CPM: Many people do not know about the spontaneous forms of solidarity that emerged during the blackout. I witnessed beautiful gestures during those days, especially among my neighbours, both Chavistas and the opposition. What happened here in 23 de Enero?

 

AM: It was an all-out assault on our lives! But when faced with terrible, catastrophic situations, popular kindness, solidarity and sisterhood blooms! This is not mere socialist rhetoric; ordinary people are intrinsically brave and noble. We don’t believe that the human being is selfish by nature. Human beings are born and grow up in society; the human being is part of a whole, of a collective. The genesis of humanity is in the commons, in working together towards shared ends, and those collective instincts flourish when people face a war-like situation.

 

I can give you an example from our experience. We organise weekly fairs where fruits and vegetables are sold at very low prices through the “Pueblo a Pueblo” initiative (direct coordination with farmers). During the blackout, we sold on credit (since the electronic payment infrastructure was not working). Once the blackout was over, the people came and paid back their debts, every single one of them. One can see here that the response from the people was not selfish. People didn’t take advantage of the situation, even though they could have. Instead, those days were characterised by intense collective consciousness.

 

CPM: In describing popular power I often refer to the trilogy of self-government, self-determination and self-defense. If the commune sometimes functions as a state, as you said, that means communes generate a situation of dual power. This could lead to tensions between the existing state and the commune.

 

AM: When Chavez promoted the idea of the commune, what he did was very daring. In fact, much of his idea was advanced via the Enabling Act [the National Assembly had given Chavez the power to legislate by presidential decree] since his proposal was sure to rub the establishment the wrong way. By doing so, Chavez broke with the logic of the state.

 

Alvaro Garcia Linera talks about “creative tensions” that allow for new things to happen. When you move away from constituted power, that creates a space for the new to bloom, that allows flowers to spring forth from the creative tensions. We welcome contradictions. If we didn’t have them, it would mean that we do not have an alternate project, it would mean that we are part and parcel with our society’s hegemonic logic, which is capitalist.

 

On the question of dual power: we don’t think of it in terms of a parallel state. Instead, we consider the communes to be the crystallisation of a proposal initiated by President Chavez. He understood that the commune, through self-government and autonomous popular economic activity, would bring about the new state, a communal state. But of course, it is still a process under construction.

 

As I was saying earlier, we encounter contradictions everywhere. Although some state institutions may be hostile to our commune, our commune has, in general, benefited from the goodwill of people within the state, people who support our commune, who want our project to advance. We have received economic and technical support from the state, and that has helped us build popular power.

 

We know that tensions and contradictions will remain, and we welcome them since we do not seek a static situation. Rather, we seek change, and change only happens when there are contradictions.

 

CPM: Is it fair to say, however, that the commune is not in the forefront of the government’s political discourse now?

 

AM: Absolutely. Look, when Chavez became a public figure, many from the left didn’t understand that they had to change course, that the only way forward was with Chavez. Likewise, many within Nicolas Maduro’s government maintain the old conception of the state and don’t understand that the commune is the goal.

 

However, that is what the Bolivarian Revolution is: a combination of very diverse currents. Within the Revolution, there is an intense debate about the commune, sometimes hidden, sometimes open. Our role is to show that the commune is indeed the historical subject. We show this through our example, and, in doing so, we hope to make a rupture with the old ways and become hegemonic.

 

Our contribution to this important debate is through our practice, through our work. Our constructive criticism can be found in the concrete example that we are creating. Building a commune brings forth a new culture, a new form of doing politics, and new economic relations. Against the logic of representative democracy, we propose participatory and protagonistic democracy, and the commune is the supreme expression of the latter.

 

CPM: The media discourse tends to criminalise poor barrio‐dwellers. It has been going on for a long time. Recently, there has been a great deal of focus on “colectivos” [a common form of grassroots organisation in urban Latin America and Venezuela in particular] to make them seem as if they were merely gangs or paramilitary organisations. Has that affected your projects in the 23 de Enero barrio?

 

AM: Indeed, there is nothing new about all that. Earlier, during the 1960s to the 1990s, the communists and the radical urban left were considered to be the source of all evil. Later the Bolivarian Circles were criminalised. Frankly, every expression of popular organisation that isn’t submissive has always been criminalised in history. That’s because popular organisation is, indeed, a problem for the system. The mass media has always demonised the people when they organise, so it shouldn’t surprise us.

 

Now, in this new phase of the imperialist aggression, we can see that popular action is once again being criminalised. They are in a process of rebranding “colectivos” as terrorist organisations, as the maximum expression of evil. The poor Chavistas defending themselves in the streets, the slum dwellers defending their territories, are defending themselves! That needs to be stopped! And for that, the best way is declare them as criminals, as terrorists. Why do they do this? To instill fear in the people, to prevent poor people from organising.

 

Notes

 

[1] Panal means beehive or honeycomb in Spanish.

 

[2] The Chiliying Commune was a pioneer commune in Honan province in China. It was subject of a classic study by Li Chu, titled Inside a People’s Commune, that Chavez encouraged people to read.

 

(Cira Pascual Marquina writes for Venezuelanalysis.com.)

 

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