Constituent Power in Motion: Ten Years of Transformation in Venezuela

One of the main issues in recent years for those desiring profound social transformation – especially in Latin America – has been the question of taking power. Should we to some extent collaborate with State institutions, or should we reject any involvement with them? We can define these general visions respectively, grosso modo, as “top down” (desde arriba) and “bottom up” (desde abajo).

With the rise of Comandante Hugo Chavez Frias to the presidency at the beginning of 1999, there began in Venezuela a process of deep social transformation guided by a broad Left ranging from social democrats, revolutionary nationalists, developmentalists, and socialists, to different currents of the revolutionary Left and various popular movements. This confluence of “top down” and “bottom up” approaches, generally considered incompatible, required all the Left forces to rethink various questions. These include the State, the economy, participation, democracy, and strategies and paths of social transformation.1

No theoretical current of the Left had previously visualized the possibility that an authentic revolutionary process could develop in the manner of the Bolivarian process. It began not as a socialist revolution, but as an anti-neoliberal movement that became increasingly radicalized. It has not been led by an organization or a party; previously there was neither a big party, nor a strong working-class organization, nor even a newspaper. The process does not have a declared ideology to follow; rather, it draws on a wide range of groups and organizations with structural, social, and political differences, with different origins, and with different histories. Bolivarianism is not so much an ideology as it is a set of values orienting a process of seeking.

The two-track approach, combining bottom-up and top-down strategies as in Venezuela, has come to characterize various contexts of social transformation in Latin America (Zibecchi 2006: 226). The Venezuelan process includes among its participants both traditional organizations and new autonomous groups; it encompasses both state-centric and anti-systemic currents. The principal agent of change is understood to be the constituent power (poder constituyente), that is, the legitimate collective creative capacity of human beings, expressed in movements and in the organized social base. At the same time, the constituted authority (poder constituido) – the State and its institutions – must guarantee the framework and conditions of the process. Although not free of contradictions and conflicts, this two-track approach has been able to uphold and deepen the process of social transformation in Venezuela.

The Bolivarian process began as anti-neoliberal. It called for strengthening civil and human rights and for building a “participatory and protagonistic democracy” as a proposed “third way” beyond capitalism and socialism. The goal was to create a “humanist and solidaristic economy.” After the government confronted at every level the difficulties or even the impossibility of reorienting public policies, especially social policies (Lander 2007: 71), it began in 2003 to build parallel structures (especially through social programs called missions) with broad participation from below. Because of the impossibility of carrying out structural changes within the existing political and economic system2 – in view of attacks on the government’s reformist program from the opposition, the bourgeoisie, the oligarchy, national and transnational capital, and the United States – organizational needs together with the radicalization of social movements pushed the process further to the left (Azzellini 2007; Wilpert 2007).

In late 2005 Chavez called socialism the only alternative for bringing about the necessary transcendence of capitalism. And beginning in 2007, the idea of participation was officially defined in terms of poder popular (people’s power), revolutionary democracy, and socialism. Because of the obvious difficulties of defining a clear path to socialism or a clear concept of what socialism is today, the goal is defined as “socialism of the 21st century,” which is an ongoing project. The name also serves to distinguish it from the “real socialisms” of the 20th century. The process of seeking and building is guided above all by values such as collectivity, equality, solidarity, freedom, and sovereignty (MinCI 2007: 30).

The strategy of transformation is based on creating structures parallel to existing institutions and processes. This makes it possible to respond quickly to social needs while at the same time building institutions not marked or distorted by prevailing practices. The focus of development and of socio-political organization is local. This aspect is increasingly refined over time. The idea of communal production and consumption cycles is based on Istvan Meszaros, who traced basic ideas for a transition to socialism in his book Beyond Capital. Relying heavily on Marx’s Grundrisse, he proposes a “communal system” (Meszaros 1995: 759–770). Meszaros has been extensively cited, published, honored, and invited to speak in Venezuela and by Chavez.

Since January 2007, Chavez has proposed to go beyond the bourgeois state by building the Communal State (Estado Comunal). He thus picks up and applies more widely a concern originating with anti-systemic forces. The main idea is to form council structures of all kinds (Communal Councils, Communes, and Communal Cities) which will gradually supplant the bourgeois state. The State is not conceived as a neutral instrument that can simply be taken over (the Leninist assumption); nor is it seen as an autonomous entity (as in bourgeois or social-democratic tradition). Instead, it is viewed as an entity entirely shaped by capitalism and therefore as having to be transcended. As was proposed in the constitutional reform that was rejected in the 2007 referendum, the future Communal State must be subordinated to people’s power (poder popular) (AN-DGIDL 2007), which replaces bourgeois civil society. This would overcome the rift between the economic, the social, and the political – between civil society and political society – which underlies capitalism and the bourgeois State. It would also prevent, at the same time, the over-centralization that characterized the countries of “real socialism.”3

In the Bolivarian process there is a confluence of various revolutionary and socialist Lefts. The lessons from their experience go beyond strategies for social transformation put forward by those same currents in earlier years. Given the paucity of objective truths about socialist construction, along with the unprecedented character of the Venezuelan process, it is not surprising that Simon Rodriguez’s maxim, “o inventamos o erramos” (either we invent or we fail), should have become a major slogan in the work of transformation. Parallel forms, initiatives, and institutions arise; they are created and then abandoned or cut back in favor of others. What seems like political inconsistency is in fact the expression of a search for new approaches. Of course, this provides no guarantee of success. The process of building from two directions – top-down and bottom-up – is full of conflicts and contradictions.

Both from the government and from the “base” of the Bolivarian process, there is an explicit commitment to redefine State and society on the basis of an interrelation between top and bottom (arriba y abajo), and thereby to move toward transcending capitalist relations. The State, being a relic of the past, is not seen as the agent of change; this latter role belongs to the movements, to the organized people. The State’s role is to accompany them; it must be the facilitator of bottom-up processes, so that the constituent power (el poder constituyente) can bring forward the steps needed to transform society.

Top-down strategy, which is more linked to the State, to institutionalism, and to sovereignty, can coexist with representative democracy, and sees State as the central agent of transformation. Bottom-up strategy is associated more with autonomy and self-government; it rejects representation and representative democracy. Those who support a bottom-up strategy criticize bureaucratic institutions and parties, which they accuse of monopolizing decisions, ignoring corruption, and fomenting a general bureaucratization that has demobilizing effects (APPP 2005; Ellner 2008).

The great challenge is to keep the process open and to develop a practice from above that can support, accompany, and strengthen the “bottom-up” aspect without coopting or limiting it. At the same time, strategies from below need to be created allowing grassroots forces to take an active role in building the new society, without letting themselves be coopted from above and without losing the initiative to the State and its institutions. What is at issue, then, is the relationship between constituent power and constituted power. The constituent power sets the tone and is the creative force for what is new. An obvious question is whether (and up to what point) it is possible for the State and its institutions to overcome their own way of functioning by interacting with the movements “from below” and whether structures of mass organization initiated or sponsored by the State can become sufficiently independent of it to be able to transform it.

We must keep in mind that all this unfolds within a framework that is still capitalist and with a political system which, albeit in transformation, remains mostly representative and liberal. Although the definition of the role and form of the State has changed constantly during the last ten years, Venezuela’s political system remains a representative democracy with certain elements of participatory democracy.

The historic movement for change

The social movements involved in the Bolivarian process should not be viewed – as is common in the social sciences – as signs of a malfunctioning of the political system (Rucht, Koopmans & Neidhardt 1998), or as reflecting a problem of legitimacy (Habermas 1973), or as an indicator of the growing differentiation of a modern society (Luhmann 1996). In Venezuela the movements are better understood – following Walter Benjamin (1973), Ernst Bloch (1973), Miguel Mazzeo (2007) and Karl Marx (1961) – as an expression of aspirations for emancipation and freedom, with historical roots.

The fundamental idea of Bolivarianism arises from the different experiences of emancipatory resistance struggles at the local, regional, national, and continental levels. The trajectory of the Venezuelan Left is little known although of great interest for its variety and richness in every sphere. Following the lead of Marxist historians such as Eric J. Hobsbawm, George Rude´ and Edward Thompson, who brought to light a “history from below” and recognized a clear rationality in social movements, we can describe the unfolding of the Bolivarian process as the formation of an historical current for change, comprised of different currents of the Left which converge, without becoming homogenized, in a common project (Bonilla-Molina & El Troudi 2004: 104). For it to have developed as such, certain historical events and “ruptures of the continuum” (Benjamin 1973: 191) were required, such as the Caracazo of 1989, the civilian-military uprisings of 1992, and the electoral triumph of Chavez in 1998. Thus the notion of historical current for change is not closed, hermetic, or homogeneous. What characterizes the Bolivarian process is the great historical diversity of both its actors and its forms of organization.

The Left played a key role in overthrowing the dictatorship of Perez Jimenez in 1958; this included the Communist Party (PCV), the labor unions, and in that period still Accion Democratica (AD) and especially its youth section. Subsequently, however, the Left was marginalized by the bourgeois parties URD, AD and Copei, via the Pact of Punto Fijo (PPF) followed by various other pacts with business leaders, the Vatican, and the unions, which established a repressive democracia pactada under which the only channels of mediation were those of the parties in power and the unions tied to them. In response its marginalization, armed organizations arose on the Left, and the PCV joined in the armed struggle. Between 1960 and 1962, there were military uprisings in coordination with Left organizations and guerrillas (Azzellini 2009b). The guerrilla movements failed; they were unable to create a broad base in the population (Azzellini 2009c). But they left an important inheritance: the Partido de la Revolucio´n Venezolana (PRV), which grew out of a 1965 split in the PCV guerrilla army. The PRV declared itself Marxist and committed to a revolutionary and emancipatory Bolivarianism, inspired by Simo´n Boli´var, by his teacher the philosopher Simo´n Rodri´guez (1769–1854), who frequented utopian socialist circles in France in the early 19th century, by the peasant general of the guerra federal, Ezequiel Zamora (1817–1860) (Azzellini 2009g), and by the indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan resistance (Azzellini 2009d; Denis 2007). The revolutionary Left began to proclaim the civil-military uprising as the Venezuelan path to revolution, and various currents began to infiltrate the army or to clandestinely recruit military personnel. This, combined with the history of the Venezuelan army and its lower-class social make-up – even among officers – explains the unusual positions and policies that emerged from its midst since the 1980s.

The military and political defeat of the armed struggle in Venezuela gave rise during the 1960s and 1970s to a very critical discussion of the foco concept,4 of the authoritarianism of the communist parties, and of the simplistic copying of revolutionary strategies. This led different organizations to orient themselves more toward social movements – recognizing the autonomy of the latter – and to undertake low-key political work for many years. Alfonso Tovar, former guerrilla fighter with the PCV and activist with the Fundacion Cultural Simon Boli´var in the “23 de Enero” barrio5 in Caracas explains: “The people’s movement starts to gain strength when political cadre begin to understand that they should not try to shape the movement but should rather facilitate it and give it the instruments it needs for the people to organize itself” (Azzellini & Ressler, 2004).

Many political, social and cultural movements of the most diverse types influenced the formation of the historical current in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of them were anti-authoritarian, anti-Stalinist, and linked to socialism’s council tradition and to dissident voices within “party communism,” be it pro-Soviet or pro-Chinese. The influences included Guevarism, Mariateguism, Trotskyism, and European workerism and autonomism. One would read and discuss Anton Pannekoek and Antonio Gramsci; workers’ and autonomous popular movements arose. Also present were currents of liberation theology, of national liberation, and of indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan resistance. Insurrectional movements emerged in different social sectors. Over time, the concept of emancipatory Bolivarianism was adopted by many organizations and movements with differing origins and histories (Azzellini 2009d; Denis 2007).

At the beginning of the 1980s, Venezuela had entered a profound economic crisis which turned into a crisis of the political system. The sistema punto.jista (the PPF pact among the bourgeois parties) began to decline. The disaffection of the people, especially of the poor, targeted not just the traditional parties but the concept of representative democracy as such. By 1988 the situation had become dramatic. Inflation reached 100%, there were shortages and speculation with food, and poor people were hungry. When President Carlos Andres Perez, in 1989, implemented a program of austerity and structural adjustment following International Monetary Fund (IMF) guidelines, leading to a rise in bus-fares, discontent exploded on February 27 in a rebellion known as El Caracazo. Poor people came down from the hills of Caracas toward the center, looting everything they encountered on the way. The rebellion spread to all the other Venezuelan cities. The government ordered the police and the army to suppress the uprising, which led to between 3,000 and 10,000 deaths. Citing Foucault’s notion of “effective history, Reinaldo Iturriza comments (2007: 5): “If F27 has some affinity with June 1848, the Paris Commune, May 1968, or the Argentine Cordobazo, it lies in the fact that all of them drastically shook existing power relations and thereby changed the course of history.”

The middle ranks of the army were the ones chiefly responsible for implementing the massacre. The outcome enforced the conviction among the Bolivarians in the armed forces that it was necessary to act quickly to stop the regime. In February and November 1992, there were two civil-military uprisings. These together with the Caracazo were constitutive of the Bolivarian process. In the midst of the crisis of the established powers, popular movements adopted more and more autonomous positions, raising specific demands around concrete problems which evolved gradually into demands for self-determination, self-management, and constituent power.

What characterizes the movements of the 1980s and 1990s is above all their great diversity, their propensity to direct action, their rejection of representation, and their localized character. These traits emerged in the context of experiences with Left parties, from the PCV to the groups Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) and Causa Radical (Causa R) which split from the PCV in 1971 (Azzellini 2009a).6

Other decisive turning points of the Bolivarian process were the election of Chavez and the Constitutional Convention process of 1999, which had broad popular participation and fixed for the first time a provisional framework for the transformation process, while at the same time anticipating the great diversity of its components:

Popular participation, in a myriad of forms not reducible to parties or movements or groupings, has become integral to the political reconfiguration of the new century. Neoliberalism’s scorched-earth policy generated antibodies pervading every dimension of society (economic, political, normative, identitarian, and cultural). The principal characteristic of the political changes in Latin America has to do with this renewed participation. (Monedero 2007: 5)

This is also the basis of the Bolivarian process:

This multiplicity accounts for the extraordinary revolucionary potential of chavismo. The multiplicity of subjects implies the multiplication of arenas of struggle (frentes de lucha), a diversity of strategies for radical democratization, and a high capacity to mobilize in defense of the revolutionary process when it has been in danger. It was these multiple singularities that came out into the streets by the millions to restore democracy on April 13, 2002. (Iturriza 2007: 6).

It is this diversity of movements which in Venezuela, as also in other parts of Latin America, has created a space for redefinition of the collective, for a critique of existing reality, and for the reappropriation of the Principle of Hope, as described by Ernst Bloch (1973). Thus:

To a greater or lesser extent, these movements have created an environment for posing the question of class and of class struggle… As a result, class can be thought of as a community of struggles, embracing diverse modes of collective resistance. This position goes against the idea of class as a homogeneous and synthetic social formation. The unity of the monad lies not in homogeneity but rather, one can say, in the concrete community. (Tischler 2007: 112)

An important element in building these emancipatory paths is, as Benjamin emphasizes, historical consciousness of the role of past generations. In Venezuela it is easy to see the importance of history in shaping the conscciousness of those who embrace the struggle. The capacity to focus historical awareness and to create a popular consensus about it, is central to the transformation process. Tradition and myth have a persistent function in Latin American popular struggles (Mazzeo 2007: 56). Thus one can see how, throughout the centuries, embodiments of past struggles against the established order have been made into banners for current struggles.7 This is not a matter of nostalgia or folklore, because it requires in each case an adaptation to the present. It is more like a “secret rendezvous between past generations and our own” (Benjamin 1973: 179). Moreover, each such adaptation “contributes to a collective, historically grounded composition of the utopia which thus consists of superimposed layers and strata” (Mazzeo 2007: 57).

The Bolivarian imaginary links the popular imaginary with a revolutionary interpretation of the republican heroes Boli´var, Rodriguez, Ribas,8 Miranda,9 Josefa Camejo,10 etc., and then places next to them the revolutionary and anti-systemic heroes (and heroines, where they can be identified) who have come up from below, from the marginalized, the excluded, and the persecuted: Chirinos,11 Zamora, Guaicaipuro,12 Negro Miguel,13 etc. The attempt of certain historians to deny revolutionary credentials to the republican heroes is inconsequential. History is subject to interpretation; viewing its unfolding as a blend of bottom-up and top-down strategies also reflects the current process. And the revolutionary interpretation has its lessons for the present: Not until Boli´var integrated those from below and some of their demands was his movement victorious. Confronted with accusations that he is of the rabble, Chavez responded, “yes, we are the same ‘rabble’ that followed Boli´var” (Herrera Salas 2004: 124).

Constituent power: motor of history

A key normative idea in the Bolivarian process is the priority of constituent power (poder constituyente), understood not as a temporary moment of delegating power and/or sovereignty, but rather as a permanent creative force of the people, which imposes itself, in turn, on the constituted authorities (poder constituido). The notion of a separation between “civil society” and “political society” – as expressed, for example, by NGOs – is thus rejected. The focus is rather upon fostering the potential and the direct capacity of the popular base to analyze, decide, implement, and evaluate what is relevant to its life. The constituent power is embodied in councils, in the institutions of People’s Power, and in the basic concept of the Communal State.

The constituent power is the legitimate creative capacity that resides collectively in human beings, the capacity to create something new, without having to derive it from what currently exists and without submitting to what came before. This power, being comprehensive and expansive, has been and is the basis for every revolution, democracy, and republic; it is the greatest motor of history, the most powerful innovative social force. Historically, however, the constituent power would barely carry out its role of legitimating the constituted power before it was silenced and stripped of its possibility of acting in the name of the latter. The constituent power was thus reduced to the status of a mere juridical category. The question then becomes how the constituent power can maintain its capacity to intervene and to shape the present, to create something new that does not derive from the old. This is what defines revolution: not the act of taking power, but rather a broad process of constructing the new, an act of creation and invention (Negri 1992: 382). This is the global legacy of the Bolivarian process.

In Venezuela, the concept of constituent power arose at the end of the 1980s as the defining trait of a continuous process of social transformation. The main slogan of the neighborhood assemblies (which gathered a coalition of some 700–800 leaders and spokespersons of neighborhood-based movements [Denis 2001: 22]) was “We don’t want to be a government, we want to govern” (Twickel 2006: 93). This idea, understood in increasingly radical terms, comes to orient the revolutionary transformation (Denis 2001: 65), acquiring a hegemonic status in the political-ideological debate of the 1990s, when also the parallels to Antonio Negri’s 1992 book The Constituent Power were discovered.14 Traditional political organizations and even most of the high-ranking revolutionary military officers were compelled to recognize the idea of constituent power as part of a dual revolutionary strategy. For those seeking to advance the revolutionary process, a “three in one” approach gained ground, that is, “insurgency understood as the strategic integration of rebels within the armed forces, still existing guerrilla nuclei, and a people’s militia in formation” (Denis 2001: 140).

The “three in one” thesis was never applied in its entirety. While Chavez and other young officers showed interest and supported the thesis, the more conservative among the dissident officers rejected it, as did the traditional Left. Nonetheless, the MBR-20015 and various grassroots movements organized militia groups, and the concept of Proceso Popular Constituyente (PPC) continued to spread. Chavez read Negri’s book in prison (1992–1994). He calls it an important influence in the development of the Bolivarian project (Chavez 2008: 47) and continues to cite it frequently, as for example during his swearing in as president in January 2007 and in justifying the proposed constitutional reform of the same year (Chavez 2007b: 80–92).

In 1995 various grassroots activists in Caracas (including the analyst Roland Denis whom we cite several times) formed the Guacamaya collective with the goal of advancing People’s Constituent Power. Guacamaya published training materials on the subject and organized workshops bringing together neighborhood activists and intellectuals, as well as MBR-200 (despite skepticism of some grass-roots organizations regarding this latter group).16 The discussions led to a common understanding of transformation as a continuous constituent process, led from below.

The Constituent Process of 1999 was a hybrid between protagonism (i.e., direct democracy) and representation. The National Constituent Assembly was a sovereign and foundational body, but it was made up of elected representatives. Grassroots participation was made possible by various mechanisms; its proposals were not binding, but it was nonetheless extensive. The resulting Constitution included mechanisms of “participatory and protagonistic democracy” explicitly encompassing social, political and economic spheres and creating openings for concrete future expressions.

In the ensuing years, the idea of a popular constituent process lost force because of the central role of Chavez and because of the conflictive internal situation which obligated many movements to defend the revolutionary process against opposition attacks instead of focusing on construction. Apart from certain exceptional cases, such as the Urban Land Committees (Comite´s de Tierra Urbana, CTU), protagonistic participation was not widely implemented, and the constitutional mechanisms for it were virtually unused. In addition, the chavista leadership saw the constituent power as a backup to the representative structures and not as a central source of decisions (Ellner 2008: 4). Still, even in those years, the initiative of the grassroots base, the constituent power, was decisive for sustaining the process on at least two occasions: the coup of April 2002 and the oil industry shutdown of 2002–03. On these occasions the protagonistic role was played by the constituent power and not by the constituted power or the parties. The same thing happened during and after the workers’ occupation of the factories and businesses in response to the oil shutdown. The government waited more than two years to take a position on this (Ellner 2006: 90).

Beginning in 2003–04, the government began a policy of reinforcing the bottom-up strategy, both in communities and in the workplace. The missions were put in place, discussions on workers’ self-management began, and certain municipalities initiated the Consituyente Municipal. New forms of local government appeared, including the Local Councils of Public Planning (CLPP) and the Communal Councils. The constituent movement (see INVEDECOR was developed by activists of Latin American grassroots organizations, mainly from Venezuela (Lanz 2005). The methodology is still widespread. It is used for example by the “Science Mission”: invedecor-y-la-mision-ciencia.

power both cooperates with and confronts the constituted power. But “the State has played a fundamental role in reinforcing the sense of empowerment of the base of the Chavista movement” (Ellner 2008: 5). Some organizations (such as the National Peasant Front, the CTUs, most neighborhood collectives, and independent media) have confirmed this view, but certain sectores of rank and file unionists – such as what remained of C-CURA17 after most of its members split to form Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) – criticized it, charging that it reinforced State control.

In fact, the situation is contradictory, involving both conflict and cooperation. With the institutional opening and with mass participation in government programs, new movements arise while at the same time many leaders and cadre enter the institutions to work within them, thereby weakening the movements. The broadening of direct grassroots participation (participacio´n protago´nica) brings an increase in the conflicts between the State and its popular base (especially in the sphere of production) as well as within the State, which itself becomes a site of class conflict. Not surprisingly, the deepening of social transformation multiplies the points of confrontation between top-down and bottom-up strategies. At the same time, the broadening of institutions and of the State’s role results in a growing bureaucratization, which in turn impedes the opening and the transformation.

Chavez’s own impact is also ambivalent. With his speeches, he plays a crucial role in directing public attention toward little-known initiatives from below, spreading word of their actions and helping them grow. But this can sometimes interfere with the organic growth of those initiatives, inasmuch as mayors, governors, and certain institutions naturally prefer to inflate the number of initiatives that will be ratified by Chavez, rather than to support a qualitative growth from below.

According to the National Plan for Economic and Social Development 2007–2013 (MinCI 2007), “since sovereignty resides absolutely in the people, the people can itself direct the State, without needing to delegate its sovereignty as it does in indirect or representative democracy” (MinCI 2007: 30). The reality, however, is more contradictory. Chavez’s call on the constituent power to develop, with institutional support, a dynamic of training and discussion (Moral y Luces) had no effect. And the role of the constituent power in drawing up the proposed Constitutional Reform of 2007 was – leaving aside its content – very limited.

The idea of a constituent power not subordinate to the constituted power points us toward the institution of councils.18 Thus the basis for a future Venezuelan socialism will emerge from various council structures which cooperate and converge at a higher level so as to transcend the bourgeois State and replace it with a Communal State. Various “People’s Power” councils (local councils and councils of workers, students, peasants, and women, among others) are part of this structure and are being developed and tried out.

People’s Power as praxis of socialist construction

The idea of People’s Power is closely linked with the notion of Constituent Power. Both emerged powerfully from below at the beginning of the 1990s, and at first had little impact at the governmental level. Since 2005 the construction of participatory and protagonistic democracy, and eventually also of socialism, has been linked in official discourse with People’s Power. The strengthening of people’s power was highlighted by Chavez as the key component of Venezuela’s transformation.

People’s Power is the capacity of the marginalized and the oppressed to change power relations through processes of organization, training and coordination in order to govern their own lives. Building People’s Power means building social relations contrary to the logic of capital. Or, as Mazzeo puts it, “People’s Power is not is not something different from socialism, but it refers to a particular way of conceiving it and building it” (Mazzeo 2007: 29). It is not a fully formed concept that serves as a model; instead, it is in a state of continuous development and renovation. It is a process of seeking and creation nourished by centuries of experiences, forms of organization, and struggles of subalterns (the marginalized, indigenous, former slaves, etc.).

Historically People’s Power had been understood in terms of the need for a parallel authority in a revolutionary process, creating a situation of dual power. After consolidation of the new structures of “real” power – the party and/or the “revolutionary State” – People’s Power would in that scenario be subordinated to these. In Venezuela, unlike in earlier revolutionary processes, People’s Power is viewed not as an intermediate stage but rather as the path and the goal. In Venezuela there was no collapse or destruction of the old structures. And yet, by its own logic, People’s Power cannot be decreed from above. Thus People’s Power cannot be conceived as emanating from the State, but nor can it be conceived without the State. It is the question of sovereignty – as in control of resources – that puts the relationship between the State and People’s Power on the agenda.

The emancipatory project involves a synthesis of two dynamics: one of sovereignty and one of autonomy. The problem is that the first (linked with the nation-state, representation, centralized leadership, tactics, negotiation, institutional policy) does not immediately need the second (linked to the commune, expression, confrontation, collective leadership, strategy), and even rejects it, without realizing that in so doing it is digging its own grave. But the second, in the context of imperialist relations and from the vantage-point of a “peripheral” country, indeed needs the first, because otherwise it could get nowhere. (Mazzeo 2007: 52f)

In the Venezuelan case, Chavez and part of the government know that a central task is to strengthen and consolidate People’s Power in order to survive as a process of change. They do not limit themselves, as did the Unidad Popular government of Allende in Chile, to formal governmental power. “The People’s Government of Chavez does not claim to be the consummated expression of a duality of powers… [but instead] develops initiatives trying to build this duality” (Mazzeo 2007: 141f). The State itself thus becomes a battleground, in which People’s Power relies on grassroots democratic forms, self-organization, and councils.

With the reelection of Chavez in December 2006 begins a new phase in the process of tranformation. In the ensuing months new basic guidelines were formulated within the framework of the transition to 21st-century socialism. Within this framework Chavez and others adopt People’s Power as the most powerful impulse toward socialist transformation, giving the Communal Councils a central role (Lander 2007: 79).

The communal councils

The Communal Councils (CoCos) are currently the most advanced and most highly developed mechanism of self-organization at the local level. The most active agents of change in Venezuela have been – and continue to be – the inhabitants of the urban barrios and the peasant communities. Building workers’ councils has been much more difficult because of many Venezuelans’ weak identification with industrial work – a consequence of the rentier economic model based on oil revenues.

Communal Councils began forming in 2005 without any law and as an initiative from below. In January 2006 Chavez adopted this initiative and began to spread it. In April 2006 the National Assambly approved the law of Communal Councils. The CoCos in urban areas encompass some 200–400 families; in rural zones, at least 20 families, and in indigenous regions, at least 10 families. The heart of the CoCo and its decision-making body is the Assembly of Neighbors. This is a structure of direct participation which exists parallel to the elected representative bodies of constituted power. In 2009 there were about 30,000 CoCos in Venezuela (Azzellini 2009j).19

The CoCos are financed directly by the State and its institutions, thus avoiding major interference from the municipalities. The law does not give any entity the authority to accept or reject proposals presented by CoCos, but the relationship between CoCos and established institutions is not exactly harmonious. Conflicts arise principally from the slowness of response to CoCo demands and from attempts at interference.

The CoCos tend to transcend the division between political and civil society (i.e., between those who govern and those who are governed). Hence, liberal analysts who support that division view the CoCos in a negative light, arguing that they are not an independent civil-society organization, but are rather linked to the State. In fact, however, they constitute a parallel structure which gradually draws power and control away from the State in order to govern on its own.

At a higher level there is the possibility of creating Socialist Communes, which could be formed from various CoCos in a given territory and could also develop medium-and long-term projects of greater impact while decisions continue to be made in assemblies of the CoCos. And beyond the Communes, certain territories can be declared Communal Cities, if they are totally organized in CoCos and Communes with administration and planning from below. What is important is to distinguish between politico-administrative territory and sociocultural-economic space. Communes reflect the latter; their boundaries do not necessarily correspond to existing politico-administrative spaces. The mechanism of their construction is flexible; they themselves define their tasks. Thus the construction of self-government can begin with what the population itself considers most important and necessary or opportune. The Communal Cities that exist so far, for example, are rural and are structured around agriculture.

The idea of the Commune as a site for building participation, self-government and socialism goes back to the communitarian communist tradition of the Paris Commune, and also to Simo´n Rodri´guez, to Jose´ Carlos Mariategui, and to indigenous and Afro-American historical experience.

Movements between cooptation and autonomy

The process of building from two directions, from above and from below, is not free of contradictions. The relationship of Venezuela’s popular movements and organizations to constituted power oscillates between clientelism and autonomy, between cooperation and conflict. This is due, among other factors, to the continued functioning of bourgeois State institutions, which are not designed to accommodate demands arising from the process of transformation. In addition, there are many chavista politicians and civil servants who continue to perpetuate paternalistic and condescending practices.

Beyond the Communal Councils there are many large organizations – such as the National Workers’ Union (Union Nacional de Trabajadores, UNT) formed in 2004, the Committees of Urban Land (Comite´s de Tierra Urbana, CTU) promoted by the State since 2002, the Ezequiel Zamora National Peasant Front (Frente Nacional Campesino, FNCEZ), etc. – which are part of the process of transformation, but which have relative autonomy of discussion, organization and action, and maintain positions at odds with official policies on various issues.

The FNCEZ defines itself as Marxist, supports Chavez, and participates fully in the Bolivarian process, but it demands a deepening of the policies of transformation. It works closely with the Ministy of Agriculture and Lands and the National Insitute of Lands, and even holds staff positions in regional offices, yet also carries out land seizures and occupations of inefficient institutions, and clashes with the police, the army, and the National Guard, while in other zones it cooperates with the army. One of the main problems of the peasant movement is that more than 230 peasants have been assassinated since 2001 at the behest of landlords, without an adequate response on the part of the police or the authorities.

During election campaigns, movements give the impression of forming a bloc with the government. At other times, many movements display more autonomy, are more critical of the government, and are more oriented toward developing their own practices and pressuring the constituted power. The same is true of the FNCEZ, which, during electoral periods since 2007, has exercised self-restraint vis-à-vis the government and mobilized part of its forces in support of electoral campaigns. After the February 2009 referendum, the FNCEZ resumed its direct pressure against the constituited power. The deepest and most critical debate within the Bolivarian movement – a debate carried on with a great deal of grassroots autonomy – took place after the December 2007 defeat of the referendum on constitutional reform.

Contradictions and tensions

The contradictions in the process of building People’s Power are numerous. The asymmetry of power between the State and what is “from below” makes it likely that State institutions and their “representatives” influence initiatives from below, and not vice versa, meaning that the initiatives and movements from below risk being co-opted, in the sense of reproducing the logic and the patterns of constituted power, such as hierarchical structures, representative mechanisms, division between leaders and led, and bureaucratization. This danger is reinforced by the central role of the State in modern Venezuelan history, which nurtures the illusion that the State can do whatever it wants. Initiatives from below would then no longer be the seed and precursors of the future society; they would be nothing more than appendices of the Constituted Power.

Experiences with government policies for promoting popular organization are very diverse and depend on prior experiences of grassroots organizing and also on the relationship of each particular grassroots group with the institutional agency it interacts with. Some experiences are marked by paternalism and clientelism; others are limited to a nucleus of activists without real popular participation, while in still other cases it has been possible to increase popular and communitarian organization to the point of raising the level of its autonomy vis-à-vis the institutions. In some instances this has led to a democratization of the institutions; in others the popular organizations simply learned to stand up to them.

Another problem is maintaining political and organizational plurality, especially since the creation of the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) as a mass party. The party form gives rise to many dangers and traps. It tends toward a centralization, bureaucratization, and hierarchization that clash with a politics of self-management and pluralism.20 But Chavez and the Bolivarian movement have not been able to do without an organization that plays the role of a party in the existing institutional structure, winning elections and working with parliament (Hellinger 2008). The situation in Chavez’s previous party, the Movimiento V. Republica (MVR, Movement of the 5th Republic) and among many governing parties did not foster democratic pluralism but instead encouraged clientelistic rule, with decisions negotiated among the top leaderships. It was hoped that this could be avoided by creating a new party built up from below.

When the moment for doing this arrived, however, it seemed more urgent to organize the electoral machinery for the December 2007 referendum on constitutional reform (Hellinger 2008; Lander 2009). Thus although the PSUV contained grassroots units, there were at first no inner-party elections. The founding process of the party was characterized by the attempts of influential politicians and interest groups to gain shares of power for themselves. This provoked criticism and discontent among the membership.

In conflictual situations there is often a tendency to ignore criticisms or allow them only within narrow leadership circles of government or party. This is where the autonomy of the movements and also the existence of diverse currents within the PSUV – which Chavez himself called necessary (Monedero 2007: 16) – and especially the creation of spaces for a critical debate from below, takes on a great deal of importance. Chavez also often insists that all officers within the party should be elected by the base, even though he himself sometimes appoints leaders. The party directorate – 15 members and 15 alternates – was elected in April 2008 by 90,000 electors chosen previously by the base, while the candidates in local and regional elections were chosen (in June 2008) by the PSUV’s full membership. In the elections to the party leadership, it is noteworthy that almost none of the candidates receiving the most votes held governmental office. The majority belong to the left sectors within the PSUV or were new to the political arena. In the primary elections for candidates, some 3.2 million of the party’s 5 million members voted. While in some cities and regions grassroots candidates defeated candidates supported by local, regional and national authorities, in other cases the political or institutional power of certain candidates and the dispersion of the most politically committed grassroots forces prevented candidates from below from winning the primaries (Azzellini 2008: 63; Lander 2009).

The PSUV has become the biggest and the highest vote-getting party in Venezuela. In elections it forms alliances with other parties, principally with Patria Para Todos (PPT) and the PCV. These latter two parties, however lost some 80% of their electoral support as a result of the formation of the PSUV. And although the PSUV has made it possible for more than a million people to discuss political questions at the local level, it still has not been able to transform itself into something more than an electoral party. Up to now, the PSUV has not succeeded in providing the framework for broad and deep discussion of the process of change, nor is it a forum for critical debate. Its future remains uncertain: “The PSUV is a site of tension: it represents neither full democracy from below, nor a space that can be completely controlled from above” (Lander 2009).

It is also obvious that in order to impose sovereignty and satisfy its social responsibilities the Venezuelan State must be strengthened. This collides with the normative goal of transcending the State. If it is strengthened, it may descend further into corrupt, corporative, and bureaucratic practices, instead of transcending them.

In this context the public financing of public organizations and initiatives has ambivalent implications. On the one hand it makes possible numerous initiatives and encourages self-organization, as this has obvious positive effects, but at the same time it inhibits self-organization from below because the dependent relationship creates openings for clientelism. As Edgardo Lander puts it, “This is one of the most important tensions in the relationship of the Venezuelan State with the popular sectors. How these tensions are processed will to a large extent determine the type of democracy that can be built” (2007: 73). This tension is noted by many observers – whether grassroots activists or functionaries – but without being considered negative. As Reinaldo Iturriza told me in December 2006: “There is tension between all that comprises the State and all that fills the streets; its problematic nature does not make it bad, but makes it interesting.” Central to this tension is the relationship of constituent to constituted power. The conflict is necessary and productive; it should not be seen as negative. To the contrary, the concept of Constituent Power is derived from the crisis. And it is precisely in that tension that we find the emancipatory potential of the Bolivarian process.

The discrepancy between discourse and reality is evident. Discourse must necessarily be more advanced than reality – without of course losing touch with it – because otherwise it is not possible to generate debate, development, and perspective. Many policies demonstrate this opening. The Communal Councils in particular have all the potential to embody a continuous constituent process. Nonetheless, there also exists the opposite tendency. The future direction is uncertain; it is “a path that has never ceased to be, through a good part of its trajectory, an experiment” (Chavez 2007a: 4)

The top-down and bottom-up strategies have maintained themselves in the same process of transformation for 10 years, remaining in constant tension. It is doubtful that they can be compatible over the long term. Top-down logic understands the State as the agent of the transformation and sees People’s Power as part of its administration. The bottom-up perspective, which sees the State with a progressive government as a useful setting in which to build People’s Power with the goal of transcending the State-form, is very different. This basic contradiction impedes dual power from prolonging itself indefinitely. The growing organization from below and the development of People’s Power clash automatically with the constituted power. They limit it and overflow it if it does not limit them. They can only expand over time if they get the upper hand, in which case the constituent power would profoundly transform the constituted power.

Meanwhile, what has been gained in Venezuela in terms of improved living conditions, national development, and construction of a network of what Benjamin called Now-Time – consciousness of the potential future within the present – is no small thing. And yet there is still a long way to go to arrive at a just society, and we will have to see whether the trends in that direction of the last few years can maintain themselves in times of crisis. Within the capitalist framework (in the periphery to boot), it will be unlikely that workers, peasants, and poor people can be shielded from the impact of the crisis unless there is a further deepening of the process of redistribution and of their empowerment.

Translated by Victor Wallis


1. Although the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 had earlier prompted Left debate on conceptual and programmatic renovation, this was understood by many as confirming the validity of a strategy separate from institutions and institutional paths. The rise of Chavez, however, compelled rethinking on the part of both the state-centric or more institutionalist and the anti-institutionalist Left.

2. During the first years the core of the oil industries was re-nationalized and the government tried to boost national private industry with favorable loans and protectionist measures. It didn’t take much time to reveal that the private sector for the most part had no interest either in a democratization of the economic structures or in a transformation of the economy. Government aid was willingly accepted, but governmental policies were actively sabotaged. Most of the entrepreneurs and their associations even participated in several attempts to overthrow the Chavez government. It became clear that the private sector could not accept a focus on human development and the subordination of the economy to the needs of society.

3. Alo´ Presidente 290, 19.8.2007, in Chavez (2008: 67).

4. The concept is drawn from Che Guevara and can be described as the idea that one can generate revolutionary movements through creating small guerrilla nuclei which, by militarily engaging the forces of the State, have the potential to expose the State’s vulnerability.

5. For an in-depth description of this barrio, see Lester (2009).

6. The MAS took reformist, centralist and strongly institutionally oriented stands from the beginning and turned more and more to right. Causa R was much more unconventional, grassroots-oriented and leftist at the beginning, but followed a similar course. The peak of popularity of the MAS was in 1993 when it won 10.8% of the votes in parliamentary elections. But after that, the votes began to drop, and with its participation in the Rafael Caldera government (1994–1998) the MAS experienced a huge loss of confidence among the voters. Above all, Teodoro Petkoff caused severe disappointment with his neoliberal politics. A former communist and ex-guerrilla, he had joined the Caldera government as minister for planning and was responsible for the structural adjustment program known as Agenda Venezuela, negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Just before the end of Caldera’s term, MAS withdrew its support. In the elections of 1993 the Causa R, which had gained a favorable profile through its participation in regional governments and especially through having deep roots in the independent unions of heavy industries in the state of Boli´var, drew twice as many votes as the MAS. Unionist and Boli´var Governor Andres Velasquez ran as the Causa R candidate for presidential elections and came fourth with 21.95% of the votes. The leadership of Causa R thought there had been some fraud but while the rank and .le wanted to stage mass protests, the party leaders and Velasquez decided not to protest and apparently negotiated with the government.

The growing distance of the party representatives from the rank-and-.le, however, was of concern not only to MAS, but also to Causa R. The reason was not just the individual incapacity of party representatives or the party itself, but the immanent systemic limits of representative democracy. The parliamentary logic set clear limits to an organic relationship between the organized movements and the institutional representation of left parties. The endless debates and negotiations in parliament led even the left parties into the logic of negotiation and efforts to ensure their own parliamentary presence. This in turn led the masses to question the legitimacy not only of the rightist parties but also of the new leftist ones. In turn, they increasingly questioned the entire parliamentary system of representative democracy. MAS faced further splits. When they decided in 1998 to support Hugo Chavez as a presidential candidate, Petkoff protested and left the party. In 2002 MAS split again. While the majority of MAS leaders and representatives in parliament decided to follow Petkoff in joining the opposition, most of the rank-and-file members joined Podemos, under the leadership of Didalco Boli´var and Ismael Garci´a, and continued in their support for Chavez. For the presidential elections of 2007 MAS supported the opposition alliance candidate, Manuel Rosales, and won only 0.61% of the votes, the worst result of its history. Podemos finally broke with the Chavez government in 2007, with a great majority of their representatives and rank-and-file members joining the newly formed United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

Causa R split in 1997. About 80% of the members and cadre formed Motherland for All (Patria Para Todos – PPT), reinforcing a leftist orientation. In 1998 PPT supported the candidacy of Chavez. The party managed to consolidate politically and organizationally and still existed in 2008 as an independent party, part of a government alliance supporting Chavez. Another group of members left Causa R to join the PSUV. Thus, beyond the name and individuals using it, Causa R is no longer a party with any visibility, public profile, or militancy (Azzellini 2009a).

7. Examples include: Tupac Amaru, Tupac Katari, Jose´ Marti´, Farabundo Marti´, Ricardo Flores Mago´n, Augusto Cesa´r Sandino, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, etc.

8. Jose´ Fe´lix Ribas (1775–1815), hero of the Venezuelan war of independence.

9. Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816), revolutionary, precursor of the Venezuelan independence struggle.

10. 1791–1862, heroine of the independence struggle, led groups of women and of slaves in armed struggle.

11. Jose´ Leonardo Chirinos (? –1796) is recognized as a precursor of the struggle for independence and the abolition of slavery and a symbol for the African heritage of Venezuela (Azzellini 2009f).

12. Pre-Columbian indigenous leader in the Spanish province of Venezuela in the 16th century who organized successful resistance against the Spanish colonialists (Azzellini 2009e).

13. Negro Miguel was an African slave who in 1553 led the first recorded revolt by enslaved Africans, disrupting a gold rush in Venezuela’s Burla mining region, and later established a maroon colony (Azzellini 2009h).

14. Oddly, the concept of Poder Constuyente is almost totally absent from academic studies of the period. At most it is mentioned only in reference to the demand for a Constitutional Assembly.

15. Founded in December 1982, and initially named Revolutionary Bolivarian Army 200 (EBR-200), the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement 200, was a clandestine civil-military organization with the goal of overthrowing the government and building a more just system. Chavez was among the founding members. MBR-200 organized the military uprising of February 1992. Chavez gained national recognition on this occasion for his TV speech in the name of the military rebels.

16. In the workshop the method INVEDECOR (Investigacio´n, Educacio´n, Comunicacio´ny Organizacio´n) was used (Denis 2001: 144), which is closely related to the co-research (coricerca) process of collective investigation developed by the Italian workers’

17. The Class-based, Unitary, Revolutionary and Autonomous Current (C-CURA) was one of the major currents of the Bolivarian National Union of Workers (UNT); it has a Trotskyist background. While Marea Socialista supported the constitutional reform and also joined the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and supports the government in spite of strong criticisms, C-CURA is not supporting the government, which it sees as a bourgeois government that has to be opposed by united workers.

18. Interestingly, models of self-government via councils have re-entered discussion on the left not only in Venezuela but also in other countries, quite independently of the Venezuelan experience.

19. For detailed analysis of the origins and development of the Communal Councils, see Azzellini (2009i: 357–489); on their functioning, Azzellini & Ressler 2010.

20. For a critique of the party form in general and the dangers and contradictions which might arise in the Venezuelan context, see Monedero (2007).


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