The Alexis Vive Patriotic Force, which has deep roots in Caracas’ 23 de Enero barrio, 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 organization, Alexis Vive wholeheartedly embraced the initiative and has since then built a highly successful commune called El Panal Commune 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 crisis escalated by US aggressions.
The commune is usually thought of as a space of construction – for the political and economic reorganization 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.
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, that is the question of who is it that activates, who lights up the field, who pushes changes forward. And when we reflect on this issue, which means thinking about our own practice, we guide our interpretation by the proposal that developed with Comandante Chavez.
Chavez developed a hypothesis after a process of maturing, after a rigorous analysis of the Venezuelan and continental realities, and after a reflection on the revolutionary potential under our feet (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, the comuneros, that is where the revolution really begins. So we made this proposal ours, we committed to it.
We were aware that the proposal and our embracing it was going to be attacked from its onset, at its genesis. 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. Well, 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. So that is where we find the initial seeds for the commune: in [Chavez’s 2006] proposal to build a socialist “patria.”
It became clear to us then that there was going to be a new level of confrontation. We knew that the path towards socialism was going to be demonized, that contradictions would pop up everywhere, inside and outside. So we can say that the communes hadn’t even been born yet, and we were already in resistance! But the truth is that we have been in resistance 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 organization of education and affects, to the organization of the formal political sphere and the economy.
Why is there conflict? 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 subject stands tall and says: Hey, this doesn’t have to be so, this is not the only option. The communal subject is the one that affirms that capitalism is not a natural occurrence, it is an imposition.
The communes are counter-hegemonic spaces with a vocation for hegemony. From our commune, we aim to show that another organization of society is possible, that power must be reorganized, and 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.
Preparing for food distribution at El Panal Commune. (Comuna El Panal)
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 organized?
El Panal Commune has some specific characteristics. We, as Alexis Vive, began to think about building a commune in 2006 and shortly 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. Here, by contrast, the forming of the commune followed its own path.
This commune comes out of a practice and a set of symbols that we put on the street. In our case, the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force generated a collective practice and a discourse that pointed the way [with Chavez] towards the commune. This worked quite well: the community here, in the central part of 23 de Enero, picked up the idea and ran with it.
Here, in these territories, the “Panalitos por la Patria” [“Beehives for the Homeland"], which are small working and discussion 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 touched on the subject of the Chiliying Commune, which had various structures of participation for the people: councils, brigadists and producers. The division was based on the commitment to work and struggle. The brigades were made up of a militant group of communards with a life-commitment to the struggle. In our commune, these brigades are made up of professional cadres, and they take on the larger issues of production and distribution in the community. They are also, it almost goes without saying, highly politicized 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.
All this relates to the commune’s process of grassroots planning and administration of resources. Some of our resources go to sustaining a “comedor popular” [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 organization, it is also an economic organization.
There is another “higher” element to the commune’s organization: the patriotic assembly, the space where comuneros gather to decide collectively what must be done, and how, through participatory democracy.
“Abejitas de El Panal” is an associated work collective that produces clothing. (Comuna El Panal)
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 electrical blackout and the attacks on the electric grid. Tell us about how you have organized resistance in the commune in this context.
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 go up against capital and against imperialism, there is only one option: to prepare. 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 transitioning 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 inspire 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 organization 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. In fact, the commune acts as a kind of state or government in everyday life, and it does so also when faced with a contingency or aggression. Obviously, that [alternative power supply] made for a less hostile environment during the blackout.
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 neighbors, both Chavistas and opposition. What happened here in 23 de Enero?
It was an all-out exercise of violence against our lives! But when faced with ugly, catastrophic situations, popular kindness, solidarity and sisterhood blooms! This is not just discourse: people were brave and noble. We don’t believe that the human being is selfish by nature. Humans are formed 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 organize weekly fairs where fruits and vegetables are sold at very low prices through the “Pueblo a Pueblo” initiative [direct coordination with campesinos]. During the blackout, we sold on credit [since the electronic payment infrastructure was offline], and the neighbours came through. One by one, they came back and paid their debts when the blackout was over. One can see there 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 characterized by collective consciousness.
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.
When Chavez promoted the idea of the commune, what he did was very daring. In fact, much of what was advanced in terms of the law was done 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 pull away from constituted power, that opens a space for the new to bloom: that flower springs forth from the creative tensions. We welcome contradictions. If we didn’t have them, it would mean that we wouldn't have a project. Instead, we would be 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 crystallization of a proposal left 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 all that is a process under construction.
As I was saying earlier, we encounter contradictions everywhere. Although some [state] institutions may be somewhat more hostile than others, we can also say that our commune has [in general] benefited from the goodwill of people within the state, people who have cast their lot with the commune. 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.
A patriotic assembly, the highest instance for decision‐making in El Panal Commune. (Comuna El Panal)
Is it fair to say, however, that the commune is not in the forefront of the government’s political discourse now?
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 a latent debate about the commune. 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 big debate is through our practice, through work. Our constructive criticism can be found in our concrete example. 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 protagonic democracy, and the commune is the supreme expression of the latter.
The media discourse tends to criminalize 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 organization in urban Latin America and Venezuela in particular] to make them seem as if they were merely gangs or paramilitary organizations. Has that affected your projects in the 23 de Enero barrio?
Indeed there is nothing new about all that. In the Fourth Republic the “ñangaras” or the “tupamaros” were the source of all evil. Later the Bolivarian Circles were criminalized. Frankly, every expression of popular organization that isn’t submissive has always been criminalized in history. That’s because popular organization is, indeed, a problem for the system. The mass media has always demonized the people when they organize, 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 criminalized. They are in a process of rebranding “colectivos” as terrorist organizations, as the maximum expression of evil. Imagine that, poor Chavistas in the street, barrio‐dwellers defending their territories! That should be stopped, and the most efficient way is criminalization. Why do they do this? To instill fear into the people, to keep poor people from organizing.
El Panal communards and members of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force in a march against fascism and corruption. Caracas, April 2016. (Comuna El Panal)
 Panal means beehive or honeycomb in Spanish.
 The Chiliying Commune was a pioneer commune in Honan province in China. It was subject of a classic study by Li Chu, Inside a People’s Commune, that Chavez encouraged people to read.
 Ñangara is a term used to refer to communists. Initially, it had negative connotations, but Venezuelan leftists later used it to identify themselves.
 Tupamaro was a term used to refer to the radical urban left. It was originally used by a revolutionary Uruguayan movement of the 60s and 70s.