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Robert Longa of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force and El Panal Commune. (Venezuelanalysis)

The commune and 21st century socialism: A conversation with Robert Longa of El Panal Commune

Originally published: Venezuelanalysis (November 23, 2018)   | 

The Alexis Vive Patriotic Force collective was born during the fraught months of 2002 in which the right-wing attempted to topple Hugo Chavez through a coup d’etat. Based in the working class 23 de Enero barrio, the young organization considers itself both Leninist and Guevarist. They are committed to carrying out Chavez’s project of building socialism through communes, and as such, have built the El Panal Commune(1), which produces both basic goods and revolutionary culture. This interview with Alexis Vive’sRobert Longa sheds light on that communal project and the organization’s vision of the future.

As part of El Panal Commune, an initiative that aims to reorganize our way of living both politically and economically, could you explain to us how the commune, as a building block for socialism, relates to Chavez’s legacy?

When Chavez emerges on the political scene, he connects with our [Venezuelan] roots and breaks with the Eurocentric notions that the Soviet bloc imposed during the ‘60s and ‘70s: the narrow notions of development that became common on the left during the Cold War. Chavez comes into the public eye talking about the Bolivarian epic and reconnecting with Latin American and Indo-American history: our history of resistance, our culture, and the legacy of our “Liberators.”(2) He also breaks with the model of representative democracy and begins to talk about participatory and protagonist democracy. Heinz Dietrich, an author now separated from the Bolivarian Process but who at one time accompanied it, called Chavez’s project of participatory and protagonist democracy, “the project for new socialism.” Chavez begins there, from this concept of participatory and protagonist democracy, and little by little begins to fill it with content. It becomes a new architecture for the construction of 21st Century Socialism.

We believe that the commune, the project that brings together groups of communal councils–which to a degree are modeled on the Russian Soviets–is the most genuine organizational form that can allow popular power to take shape on a territorial(3) level. Chavez turns this form of organization into a model, the communal model. As an organization, Alexis Vive is completely in agreement with the project of communal organization, that is, bringing the communal project, which recalls the Paris Commune, into our spaces of life and work. Power resides in the people, and they must be the ones to exercise it. The people constitutes power. From there, from that radical conception of power and democracy, we connect with Chavez and what he stands for…the concrete realization of his ideas.

This brings us to a critical encounter with some existing practices that deviate from Chavez’s original concept: his project (and ours) is not one that reinstates the logic of representation under the umbrella of a new legal framework. Also, regarding the commune, it is not about renaming mere neighborhood or condominium associations. The commune is a territorial form for exercising popular power: power by and for the people. Thus, from our point of view, Chavez’s commune is, if not the final model, at least the path for the consolidating of 21st Century Socialism. It is the model developed to transfer power to the people, the model that Chavez outlined so that the people would assume power politically, economically, and socially. That is why we also look to the Paris Commune and other historical expressions of political revolutionary organization as we develop popular power in our territory.

Direct, participatory democracy is at the core of Chavez’s communal project. Here a “Patriotic Assembly” in El Panal Commune in 23 de Enero, Caracas

Direct, participatory democracy is at the core of Chavez’s communal project. Here a “Patriotic Assembly” in El Panal Commune in 23 de Enero, Caracas. (Fuerza Patriótica Alexis Vive blog)

You have a communal project located here in the 23 de Enero barrio: the commune “El Panal.” But the influence of El Panal reaches far beyond this immediate area. Can you say something about these two levels of work?

Our collective was born here in the central zone of 23 de Enero. This is where the first territorial exercise in communal construction happened. But a commune cannot be an island, and El Panal has since expanded to Valencia, Lara State, to form what we call “El Panal 2021 Communal Hub.” Our sphere of action is not defined by imaginary lines [such as city or state borders]. Instead, it grows out of the work of “Panalitos” [small beehives], which refers go back to the psycho-emotional logic of preparing and working with the people, with the masses. The panalitos are the immediate spaces for mass participation, to use a Marxist category, or the sphere of the multitude, to use Negri’s postmodern notion, or the isthmus of the potentia, to use Enrique Dussel’s term. The masses–the organized people–are the force that moves history. And so we come back to our earlier reflection: we understand that El Panal Commune cannot be an isolated phenomenon in the central zone of 23 de Enero. It is necessary that this communal construction expand to the whole territory with the sole aim of bringing power back to the people…and that is nothing more and nothing less than the Communal Confederation, which will bring the state (as it is now organized) to an end. Thus while Negri talks about abolishing the state and Lenin refers to toppling the bourgeois state, for our part, we say that that project [of abolishing or toppling the state] is the task of the communes.

In the Basque independentist movement, it is sometimes said that popular power should work on three levels: self-government, self-defense and self-determination.

That is a good synthesis of what popular power is. The Bolivarian Process (and Chavez himself) changed and evolved over time. At first, the discourse focused on co-management [cogestión], and then there emerged a fully emancipated conception of popular power that included the commune model. In that model, some state institutions would collaborate with the popular movements following the perspective that Alvaro Garcia Linera theorizes: Linera says that Lenin proposed taking power by assault, but here in the Latin American experiences of 21st Century Socialism, we have come to understand that there is a new subject that comes from the popular movement and enters state institutions, and this subject must participate in the counter-hegemonic struggles within the state. It must participate in the battle against the repressive forces and against the capitalist currents within it.

The truth is that with Chavez there was a comanagement period, but communes can’t stop with mere comanagement; they must advance towards self-management to then move on to self-emancipation. We call this process of separation a process of “seduction,” [and we also talk about] “self-determination” and “proletarization”(4) of the barrios. In other words, the commune must have a profoundly class-centered content to advance in the construction of 21st Century Socialism.

Thus we don’t believe in halfhearted proposals. We are not dogmatic, so we understand that sometimes conversations with the enemy, conversations to reach a truce, are necessary…but the hegemonic core of our project (and that of Chavez) is the commune, be it urban or rural, and that cannot be negotiated. The continuation and radicalization of the revolution depends on the communal project truly becoming the connecting thread in our society. So, again, we don’t deny the possibility of temporary alliances with sectors of the bourgeoisie, if it is merely tactical. Yet the only strategic alliance–if we want to remain true to Chavez–is the alliance with the people as they organize in communes.

When it comes to this issue we go to the root [lat. radices], so we are radical. We go back to Che Guevara who said that you can’t build socialism with the worn-out weapons of capitalism… Or, as Julio Escalona says, you cannot bring your enemy to the table to agree upon prices, if your enemy’s aim is to topple you. The contradictions that we face today are long‐term ones so our strategic alliances must be made in function of the organized masses, and must be subordinated to the project of the commune.

It is no secret that in the current crisis the government has chosen to pigeonhole the communal project. Some government spokespeople argue that, in the face of the crisis, the commune is not efficient in solving people’s problems. However, the grassroots continue to believe in the project. So why is there this disconnect between those above and those below regarding the viability of the project?

For those involved in the commune, there are no ambiguities, no ambivalence. The contradiction may exist for those burdened with ideological inconsistencies and who do not share Chavez’s strategic vision. Those who deny that the commune could be the space for building a new society are simultaneously negating President Chavez’s thought and action. They go against the Chavista praxis and fail to acknowledge the possibility of a human being aware of the “tactical minutes and the strategic hours,” to use the words of General Perez Arcay.(5) In effect, they deny the strategy element of the Chavista philosophy.

Here we must emphasize that, if there have been problems in the Bolivarian Process (and obviously there have), they are due to individual errors. The failures result precisely because there hasn’t been enough support, because there hasn’t been transfer of power [to the communes], and because some individuals haven’t trusted the people. Yes, there is a kind of stagnation of communal construction, but that isn’t because the model is flawed, but rather because some individuals have redirected resources away from the communes.

A case in point is the question of technology. Technology transfer is very important in the building and bolstering of communal production and [what we call] the movement towards the proletarization of the barrios. But the machinery imported by the state, the seeds and other inputs…all that is being channeled away from the communes. If state officials were committed to transferring power to the people, if they were able to take to heart Chavez’s method of the three Rs (“revision, rectification, relaunch”), then we would witness a blooming of the communal project. And the communal project is the only way to guarantee participatory and protagonist democracy.

It is not by chance that in Chavez’s last testament he talks about the need for a change of course. In this speech, he says once again that the soul of the the socialist project is the commune. It is not we who say this, it is Chavez who calls on all of us to carry out the communal project: the crowning idea of his proposal. He did this as the cycle of his political life was coming to a close. His slogan Commune or Nothing is therefore the synthesis of his legacy.

As part of the effort to build a self‐sustaining commune, El Panal launched its own currency is December 2017

As part of the effort to build a self‐sustaining commune, El Panal launched its own currency is December 2017. (@Alexisvive2021)

Faced with the grave crisis in Venezuela, what does the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force propose to do? Do you strive for radicalization? A change of course in a leftward direction? Or do you think that we should take a few steps back, to later advance?

Radicalization and deepening [of the process]. In response to a crisis that makes our world tremble, we must respond with radical changes. There’s no other way forward if human integrity is the basis of our project.

Faced with the crisis, we propose “Exclusive Zones of Communal Production,”(6) and we work towards the territorialization of socialism and the proletarization of the barrios. We aim to industrialize the barrios and give a class content to the Bolivarian Revolution. There can be no ambiguities in our actions or in our discourse: we now propose to deepen this revolution by following Chavez’s model as synthesized in the “Strike at the Helm” speech. Beyond that last speech, there is little for us to do in terms of theorization. All we have to do is bring the proposal to life. Lenin said without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary practice. Some may have forgotten it, but the path has been drawn, the theory laid out. We can say, with Silvio Rodriguez, what can we sing if the commander did it, he wrote the poem? Now it is up to us to turn his poetry into action. We have to make a practice out of it. We must make it verb. We have to conceptualize Chavez’s word through our praxis.

Chavez said to Lorenzo Mendoza(7) once: “Don’t make a mistake, Mendoza, or you’ll be left with nothing” (No te equivoques Mendoza, por que te vas a quedar sin el chivo y sin el mecate). And we say: with the Mendozas of the world we cannot come out of the current crisis…so we are against concessions. As barrio dwellers and campesinos, we are the insurgent subject that will make the Bolivarian Revolution flourish…if some do not want this, if some are afraid of Chavez and his radical proposal, all we can say is that for us there are no two ways to go about this.

With Chavez’s death we lost our guiding ideal in terms of ethics, the north star that showed the way. Today, this whole issue of the ethical example has been widely debated in popular Chavismo. I know that preaching with the example has long been important for Alexis Vive. Do you have any reflections on this issue?

One of the main figures who set an ethical and moral example, in addition to Hugo Chavez, is Fidel Castro. He was the helmsmen of Latin America and the bastion of dignity. From him and from the Cuban people we must learn resilience and endurance. But Fidel wasn’t just resilient, he was also a man capable of reflection and self‐criticism. Or, to go back to Chavez and his practice, we remember him as a leader who developed a rich theory, but also as a man who demanded that government cadres engage in self‐criticism…and he himself reflected on his mistakes publically…he taught by example and he was never arrogant with the people.

The truth is that arrogance, detachment from the people and disconnection from territorial realities…turning their backs on us and extending their hands to the historical enemies of the people, that cannot be the path, that won’t set any kind of example!

The emergence of 21st Century Socialism comes in the midst of a crisis of paradigms, a crisis that was resolved by going back to the root of the problem, a crisis that wasn’t solved by pacts or concessions. Thus, we must return to the epic struggle for socialism, to the original battlefield where there was a level ground for advancing towards our strategic goal.

As I said before, I do understand that we might have to dialogue with our historical enemy, but if the great love of our life is the revolution, then we cannot tip the field in favor of the enemy. The leadership must walk with the people, breath the air that the people breath, without forgetting that our people’s emancipation is the goal, socialism is the model, and the commune is the path.

The ethical question is central to constructing the revolutionary subject and setting the example. Integrity is a key part of our love for the revolution, and it has much to do with ideological principles. We cannot accept that our ideas, ideals, principles, and dreams be negotiated.

That is, we can accept dialogue, but our principles cannot be negotiated. The contradiction is longstanding and structural, and we must commit our lives to deepening the revolution…which can only be done casting one’s lot with the people. The ethical and moral example that guides us will grow out of a practice that follows the commune’s orientation, without manipulating Chavez’s legacy. We cannot let Chavez’s physical death be accompanied by the psycho‐emotional death of our affect for Chavez. Remember, the right seeks the peace of the graveyard and has given us ample evidence of this: in the guarimbas(8) they burned people, they decapitated poor motocyclists. They are terrorists and the guarimbas show it.

We are not filled by hatred, but we disagree with “peace moves” such as the release of Lorent Saleh.(9) We oppose the freedom of those class enemies that have killed Venezuelans because they are poor, black, or barrio dwellers. This is a class struggle, and those who disregard that fact are killing the revolution’s morale.

Could we say that in the practice of communal construction–in El Panal Commune, in Negro Primero Commune, in El Maizal Commune–a new ethical example is being set?

We don’t have a “revolutionometer” which would say who is and who isn’t a revolutionary. We cannot say who is a traitor and who is setting the example. But what I’m certain of is that as a popular movement and as a communal movement, we are not going to leave Chavez’s legacy behind. Nor are we going to turn it into a pamphlet…We are not going to make a cliche out of Chavez. We are not going to turn his words into an empty discourse that has no meaning for revolutionary practice. We are going to deepen the revolution, and if from there we come to be seen as an example, only time will tell. The fact is that we take to heart the guevarist principle of the dictatorship of the example…[We must convince people] that the new man and the new woman are not chimeras: overcoming injustices is possible and necessary. We are committed to making Chavez’s paradigm for the construction of socialism into a reality. And we will do so by way of the commune, here and now. The commune is the only path for our emancipation and for building 21st Century Socialism. We won’t let Chavez down!

 

Robert Longa and social activists of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force

Robert Longa and social activists of the Alexis Vive Patriotic Force. (@Alexisvive2021)


Notes

  1. Panal means beehive in Spanish, and it is a reference to collective construction and collective defense.
  2. The term “Libertadores” refers to the men and women who led the independence wars against the Spanish colony in the second and third decade of the 19th Century.
  3. In the Chavista discourse, the term “territorial” refers to a popular form of organization that has its roots in a particular area. In other words, it refers to an organization that is not sectorial, such as a union, a student organization or a feminist organization.
  4. The term “proletarization” was coined by Alexis Vive to describe developing productive forces under new social relations, bringing barrio dwellers out of the precarity of the urban jobs available in today’s Venezuela.
  5. Jacinto Perez Arcay is a high‐ranking military officer (retired) and writer who was key to Hugo Chavez’s education.
  6. “Exclusive Zones of Communal Production,” a concept developed by Alexis Vive, is the proposal for a political and legal framework that would prioritize communal development in certain areas of the Caribbean nation.
  7. Lorenzo Mendoza is the largest capitalist in Venezuela, and the owner of the food production enterprise Alimentos Polar. He is an active, if sometimes low‐profile, critic of the Bolivarian Government.
  8. “Guarimbas” are a form of violent street protest employed by the Venezuelan opposition. They frequently involve burning tires and the use of makeshift barricades to block roads.
  9. Lorent Saleh is a Venezuelan opposition activist who was accused in 2014 of organizing paramilitary actions and plotting terrorists attacks. There is ample evidence that he was conspiring with international figures to destabilize the Caribbean nation. On October 2018, Venezuelan authorities released him from jail without explanation. It is commonly believed that his release resulted from secret negotiations.
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