George Cicciarello-Maher’s latest book examines the rise of community self-governance in Chavéz’s Venezuela.

Few political imaginaries hold such romantic traction as the ‘commune’. Looming large in social memory is the Paris Commune, formed in 1871 when workers and revolutionaries seized the city of Paris and organised on radical socialist principles. Though short-lived, the Paris Commune emerged as a benchmark for later revolutionary movements which sought to emulate direct democracy.

Premised on the belief that people should have direct control over their own lives and that the collective spirit trumps the individual, the communal ethos has also inspired what might be the boldest ambition of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution; to re-build Venezuela as a ‘communal’ state. In his famous El Golpe de Timón (Strike at the Helm) speech delivered in 2012, Chávez implored a speedier implementation of communes as part of Venezuela’s transition to socialism from below. With Venezuela crippled by triple-digit inflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine, George Cicciarello-Maher’s latest book stands as an optimistic and timely defence of some core facets in the Venezuelan political model.

Elegant and highly accessible, Building the Commune documents the thorny process of establishing communes in Venezuela, as well as the political challenges facing the Bolivarian Revolution more generally. He draws on interviews with policy high-ups and grassroots comuneros to convey a complex picture of a political experiment in motion. Cicciarello-Maher centres these Venezuelan communal developments in the recent context of worldwide protest, from Occupy to the Indignados, all part of what he enthusiastically labels ‘the age of riots and rebellions’.

Venezuela’s communal councils, established in a 2006 law, allow small communities to group together and self-govern on local issues and collective needs. Communes are officially recognised institutions for directly democratic self-government at local level: ‘No two communes look exactly alike,’ Cicciariello-Maher observes.

Cicciariello-Maher explains that to form a commune, participants from communal councils come together and vote in a referendum. If the commune is approved, each council then sends an elected delegate to this communal parliament. All those elected are subject to citizen oversight and can be recalled from power. For Chávez, communes were the building blocks of socialism; currently there are 45,000 communal councils, incorporated into 1,500 communes.

But as Cicciarello-Maher emphasises, although Chávez created the constitutional apparatus for communes, their beginnings emerge in the 1980s when barrio residents in urban areas began forming networks of barrio assemblies. Ever anxious to stress the movement’s bottom-up impulses, Cicciariello-Maher identifies the presence of traditional indigenous modes of organising, as well as the legacy of maroon communities (fugitive slaves) in the Venezuelan communal tendency.

Over 90 per cent of Venezuelans live in the cities, drawn there in recent decades by the lure of the oil economy. Cicciarello-Maher nods to the interesting dynamics this produces, as elements of rural modes of behaviour carry through in the urban setting. Closer analysis of rural and urban differences in communal organising would be an interesting off-shoot of this observation.

Cicciarello-Maher broadly sketches the spatial politics of Venezuela’s cities, noting how urban space and land redistribution has been integral to the Bolivarian Revolution. In 2001, for example, Chávez passed by decree a Land Law that facilitated the expropriation of unoccupied land in the countryside. This was followed in early 2002 by a decree for urban areas allowing poor residents who had built their own homes on unoccupied barrio land to claim that land as their own. Although land redistribution historically is not always a revolutionary act in itself, a striking dimension to this was the way in which urban land committees (CTUs) became enshrined in law, empowering popular participation and ensuring collective organisation became a precondition to individual ownership.

Yet while Cicciarello-Maher’s work is teeming with fascinating detail – on the historical significance of saman trees, for example – curiously it is rather light on the working nuts and bolts of the communal councils themselves.  He outlines how the El Maizal commune, like many others, began with villagers congregating around sancocho, a Venezuelan stew from the countryside. But there is a lingering absence of discussion on how communes operate in practice, as well as around their internal power dynamics. Who speaks at communal councils? Are women’s, the disabled, or LGBTQI voices heard loudly?

Likewise, Cicciarello-Maher is less willing to probe the knotty questions around how communes interact with state structures. Do communes present an alternative to the state, or do they complement it?

Yet despite its brevity, Building the Commune is replete with rigorous research and detail, impeccably rendered in adroit prose.  Suffused with the voices of working-class Venezuelans (albeit mostly men), Cicciarello-Maher’s work reveals the revolutionary potential of the commune in allowing people to respond to their own needs. Far from utopian, the Bolivarian Revolution shows that the commune remains most resolutely possible.

Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela

George Cicciarello-Maher (Verso, 2016)

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/17)