Dual Power in the Venezuelan Revolution
By George Ciccariello-Maher, Nov 11, 2007, 10:04
Too often, the Bolivarian Revolution currently underway in Venezuela is dismissed by its critics—on the right and left—as a fundamentally statist enterprise. We are told it is, at best, a continuation of the corrupt, bureaucratic status quo or, at worst, a personalistic consolidation of state power in the hands of a single individual at the expense of those “checks and balances” traditionally associated with western liberal democracies. These perspectives are erroneous, since they cannot account for what have emerged as the central planks of the revolutionary process. I will focus on the most significant of these planks: the explosion of communal power.
By viewing the process through the Leninist concept of “dual power”—that is, the construction of an autonomous, alternative power capable of challenging the existing state structure—we can see that the establishment of communal councils in Venezuela is clearly a positive step toward the development of fuller and deeper democracy, which is encouraging in and of itself. But the councils’ significance goes beyond that. The consolidation of communal power says much about the role of the state in the Venezuelan Revolution. Specifically, what is unique about the Venezuelan situation is the fact that sectors of the state are working actively to dismantle and dissolve the old state apparatus by devolving power to local organs capable of constituting a dual power. Transcending the simplistic debate between taking or opposing state power, a focus on dual power allows us to concentrate on what really matters in Venezuela and elsewhere: the revolutionary transformation of existing repressive structures.
‘An Entirely Different Kind of Power’
Lenin—standing at what he felt to be an unprecedented and unforeseeable political crossroads—spoke of the emergence of “an entirely different kind of power,” one fundamentally distinct from that of prevailing bourgeois democracies.1 Alongside the Provisional Government of Kerensky, an alternative government of Workers’ Soviets had emerged, a dual power—or dvoevlastie—standing outside and against the existing state structure. This still “weak and incipient” alternative structure Lenin describes as “a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralized state power.”
What was it that made this power “entirely different”? According to Lenin, this dual power was defined above all by its unique political content, for which the clearest historical reference point was the 1871 Paris Commune.2
The fundamental characteristics of this type are:
(1) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizure,” to use a current expression;
(2) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves;
(3) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service,” whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.
As we will see, this concept can clearly be applied to Venezuela, but to do so entails a double movement: it reveals some of the limitations of the concept itself as originally formulated, and also alerts us to some of the dangers confronting the revolutionary process in Venezuela. By speaking in terms of dual power, the hope is that we might enrich our understanding both of the concept itself and of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The Explosion of Communal Power
In the aftermath of Chávez’s landslide electoral victory in December 2006, the Bolivarian Revolution has taken a radical turn. The enemies of the process soundly defeated, the way has been cleared for the deepening and radicalization of the process. Moreover, with six years of leadership ahead of him, Chávez now enjoys a brief respite from the demands of his “allies,” one which has allowed him to take serious steps against those corrupt bureaucrats within the Chavista ranks who would halt the revolutionary process. The program for this radicalization has been described in terms of the “five motors” driving the revolution, the fifth and most substantial of which is “the explosion of communal power.” This refers to the expansion of local communal councils and their authority throughout Venezuela, a process which began with the 2006 Law on Communal Councils and which has taken off in recent weeks and months.3 At present, there are an estimated 18,320 organized communal councils, and some 50,000 are expected by the end of the year.4
The committee that authored the Law on Communal Councils was chaired by Communist Party member David Velásquez—recently named Minister of Participation and Social Development—who sees the councils as the basis for the revolutionary transformation of the state, arguing that: “what is sought is to transfer power and democracy to organized communities to such a degree that the State apparatus would eventually be reduced to levels that it becomes unnecessary.”5 But as we will see below, this view also differs from Lenin’s understanding of dual power in that it has operated in part through the legal system and the state apparatus. This difference can be explained by the fact that Velásquez’s vision draws directly upon Antonio Negri’s distinction between “constituent” and “constituted” powers, a distinction which Chávez himself has cited on several occasions and which emphasizes the constant need for the intervention by the “constituent” masses in opposition to the sterility of legality and the adherence to already-constituted structures.6 This distinction—which does not dismiss constituted, institutional, or legal power from the outset, but instead subjects that power to revocation by the people—is much more useful for a discussion of dual power than a homogeneous view of the state structure, and has arguably contributed significantly (partly through Velásquez’s own intervention) to the construction of a serious dual power in Venezuela whose ethical-legal foundation is the constituent intervention of the masses.7
Considering the popularity of constituent power in Venezuela, it shouldn’t surprise us to find that the role of law in contemporary Venezuela is peculiar to say the least. The situation is what one might call a “revolutionary reverence” for the law: not an a priori respect for the law but rather an admiration derived from the experience of revolutionary legislation imposed from below, and specifically the organized defense of the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution (a defense which gave rise to the revolutionary base organizations known as Bolivarian Circles). As the spokesperson for a communal council in the Naguanagua sector of Valencia recently told me—Communal Council Law in hand—“we can’t read the law like a reactionary lawyer, but instead, without violating it, we need to make it fit our social reality in order to restore the true protagonism to the people.” This radical view of the law is, in fact, a manifestation of the Venezuelan emphasis on constituent power: while it is necessary to make use of existing constituted power (in this case, the law), one must never forget that this constituted power relies fundamentally upon the constituent power that enacted it.
According to Article 2 of the 2006 law, communal councils are “instances of participation, articulation, and integration between various community organizations, social groups, and citizens,” the goal of which is to “permit the organized people directly to manage public policy and projects oriented toward responding to the needs and aspirations of communities in the construction of a society of equity and social justice.” These councils, moreover, are required to operate according to criteria which include “mutual responsibility, cooperation, solidarity, transparency, accountability, honesty, efficacy, efficiency, social responsibility, social control, equity, and social and gender equality” (Article 3), and are broadly empowered to “adopt those decisions essential to life in the community” (Article 6). According to the law, councils are to be governed by way of committees whose spokespersons are elected for a tenure of two years (Article 12), and as with elections at other levels, mandates are revocable (Article 6).
The fiscal autonomy of the communal councils is significant, despite the fact that most funding comes—somewhat unavoidably in an oil-rich nation—via the central government. Chávez has announced on several occasions that in the future, a full 50 percent of the profits derived from the state-owned petroleum company PDVSA—profits totaling more than $6 billion during the first half of 2006—will be transferred directly to communal councils. These funds had been previously directed toward state governors and mayors, but will now be managed directly on the communal level. Toward this end, 590 billion bolívares ($274 million) had already been earmarked for 2,500 communal projects by February 15, 2007, and that figure has only been increasing since.8 So, too, has the breadth of their specified competencies: in response to the recent controversy over meat shortages caused by hoarding, a law was passed giving power to the government to take over businesses engaged in hoarding, and this law gives the same authority to communal councils. While these remain but hints as to the future importance of the councils, they are nevertheless encouraging ones. But what is the relation between the nascent communal councils and the concept of dual power outlined above?
To take Lenin’s criteria in reverse order, it should be pointed out that the explicit purpose of the councils is to subject the official bureaucracy to the will of the people expressed through direct participation on the local level. While some tentative and insufficient steps have been taken to attack corruption and bureaucracy within the central government, the councils can be seen as taking this fight to another level, both in the “social oversight” authority they are granted over the central government and in the transparent and egalitarian norms which govern their internal operations. In terms of Lenin’s two criteria—revocable leadership and the elimination of wage differentials—it is worth noting that revocable mandates have been a central plank of the Bolivarian Revolution from the beginning, and are enshrined in the 1999 Constitution.9 In terms of wages, the Venezuelan government has begun to take steps to impose ceilings on public sector wages: in January, the National Assembly—citing the fact that some high court judges earn more than twenty-eight million bolívares ($13,000) a month—began work on a law that would limit salaries for government officials to six million bolívares ($2,800) monthly.10
The capacity of the councils to attack bureaucracy and corruption begins with their capacity to supervise other levels of government: every council elects a five-person committee for “social oversight [contraloría]” which in the words of Lenin, places bureaucrats “under special control.” These committees are empowered to oversee “programs and projects for public investment budgeted and executed by the national, regional, or municipal government” (Article 11). This authority represents a powerful weapon against the corrupt bureaucracies that exist on the state and local level, and against those governors and mayors whom many hope the councils will eventually replace entirely. But this is far from certain, as Fernando—an organizer with the Simón Bolívar Cultural Foundation in the historically revolutionary 23 de Enero neighborhood and official promoter of Chávez’s nascent United Socialist Party (PSUV)—expresses a common concern at this stage of the formation of communal councils: “most mayors are playing too big a role in the creation of communal councils, trying to control them. The role of state officials should only be to provide information and facilitate the councils.”
There is also the hope that, in bypassing these various levels of government bureaucracy, the councils will be able to avoid or at least minimize the corruption that comes with the transfer of funds from the national to the local level. “If a local organization wants to request funding from the government,” Fernando explains, “that money needs to pass through so many hands [e.g. ministries, governors, and mayors] that corruption is inevitable. We hope that the councils will eliminate or at least minimize the possibility of corruption by establishing a direct link between funding and the communities.” While he doubts that fiscal reliance on the state as a whole will be eliminated in the near future—“How else,” he asks, “can petroleum money reach the communities?”—his hope is that the councils will reduce the possibility that the institutions involved remain alienated from the people.
On the local level, moreover, we find the second key element to the councils’ attack on bureaucracy and corruption: direct democracy on the local level. Turning again to Lenin’s emphasis on revocable mandates and limited wages, committee members in communal councils are elected through the direct participation of the community, for short terms (two years), and can be revoked much easier than elected officials at higher levels. When we get to the communal councils, moreover, remuneration has disappeared entirely, and all elected posts are explicitly “ad honorem” (Article 12). Whereas in the capacity of overseeing the central government, the councils serve as a counterweight to the higher levels of power. The directly democratic nature of participation in the councils coupled with the non-remuneration of their elected leadership militate against the corruption and bureaucratization of the councils themselves, thereby making them a more stable and self-sufficient reservoir of dual power. These are structures which simultaneously prefigure a future participatory society while tentatively building forces to attack those elements of the existing state which oppose that transformation.
But the ability of the councils to live up to this hope is far from guaranteed, and up the street at the council election, Carlos Rodríguez—younger brother of one of 23 de Enero’s most famous martyrs—while optimistic, insists that “only time will tell whether the councils will be able to fulfill their function.”
An Armed Populace
Lenin’s second criterion for dual power—that of a directly armed populace—is a more complicated question, since the communal councils are not armed in any official sense. Rather, they must be considered in a broader context, and the history of armed organizations outside and against the state runs deep in Venezuela. Decades of rural and urban guerrilla struggle in the pre-Chávez years have given way not to a pacification and disarmament after his election, but rather to the proliferation of networks of armed, local self-defense units concentrated in the poorest parts of Venezuela. As merely one example, we could mention the various groups concentrated in the 23 de Enero sector of western Caracas, where decades of urban insurgency gave birth to the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar (CSB), the Revolutionary Tupamaro Movement, the Revolutionary Carapaica Movement–Néstor Zerpa Cartollini Combat Unit, and the Colectivo Alexis Vive, just to name a few. Similar organizations exist in the other large barrios of Caracas—Petare, La Vega, El Valle, etc.—and throughout the country as a whole, to which we could add the mysterious activities of the decentralized Bolivarian Liberation Front which operates in rural areas.
These groups have even on several occasions received logistical support from national and local government (especially current Metropolitan Mayor Juan Barreto), though this support has not included arms as the opposition has often claimed. This, moreover, has been a reciprocal relationship: when Chávez was briefly overthrown in April 2002, several of his ministers were offered safe haven in barrios like 23 de Enero and La Vega. So while the space for armed self-defense on the local level has certainly expanded and been encouraged as elected Chavistas have taken over the various levels of the state apparatus, we should bear in mind that this has been a slow and uneven process, both because Chavista hegemony is only now becoming consolidated, but more importantly because, as a revolutionary organizer who is currently working to facilitate local preparations for asymmetrical warfare in the event of aggression against Venezuela by the United States tells me: “Despite Chávez’s pronouncements on the need for a citizens’ militia, many of those within the structure still believe in the state’s need to maintain the monopoly of violence.”
As was the case with the attack on bureaucracy and corruption, this tension emerges on two levels: both within formal military structures (between the Armed Forces and the reserves) and more importantly between those military (and police) structures and local armed organizations. As to the first, I spoke recently with a member of the National Reserve, who weighed in on the current controversy over what relation the reserves should have to the official Armed Forces. While the current inclusion of the reserves within the Armed Forces might be interpreted as a recognition of the democratic counter-power of militia organization, it is better interpreted as an effort at co-optation and subordination. “The reserves shouldn’t be part of the Armed Forces,” Victor tells me, “we should be invisible, anonymous, waiting and ready to attack any aggressor without being identified.”
This view is echoed by former commander of the reserves and recently named Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel Briceño, who argues that “the reserves should not be a component of the Armed Forces” since they lack the rigid structure of the latter and “should adopt the characteristics of a popular organization.”11 This force he currently estimates at 880,000, with the long-term objective of 15 million reservists (i.e. more than half the population). Rangel Briceño hopes that Chávez will reform the 2005 reserve law to provide the force with full autonomy, in which case the Venezuelan reserve might more closely approximate Lenin’s notion of “the direct arming of the whole people” than any force in recent history. This, at least, is Chávez’s own self-professed objective: “The military reserve must be linked to popular organization…the goal isn’t to have only reserve troops in the battalions, no, it’s the people as a whole.”12
But no matter how popular and autonomous, a centralized reserve structure would nevertheless maintain a degree of alienation from local organs of dual power, and in this sense the communal councils reside in a space between the reserves and local self-defense organizations which rupture the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence.13 Even prior to the establishment of the councils and in the absence of armed self-defense organizations, a widely held distrust of the police led many communities to take measures to ensure local safety and security. While the communal councils are not in any sense armed revolutionary cadres (as was arguably the case with some of the Bolivarian Circles), the call to decentralize power to the bases has extended to questions of local self-defense and the establishment of local security and defense committees. These “integral security committees” are enshrined in the 2006 Communal Council Law (Article 9), but their existence was largely theoretical until after the December 2006 election. In late February of this year, reserve commander Rangel Briceño—also a member of the presidential council for communal power—announced that the government would be emphasizing the need to establish security and defense committees in the communal councils, adding notably that, “these will be oriented not only toward defense from external military aggression, but as a point of internal security, in the carrying out of our daily tasks.”14
This internal security situation in the barrios was explained to me by Rigoberto, who I met at around noon on the day of the communal council elections for block five of 23 de Enero, at which point he was already drinking cold Polar Negra and shots of rum. Given that he was running for the security committee, perhaps it was lucky that he was not elected (he came in fourth place, but insisted that he had actually come in second). Despite his intoxicated state, Rigoberto explained to me how security worked in the zone even prior to the existence of the community council or security committee. “If we catch someone dealing drugs in our neighborhood,” he tells me, “first they get a warning. If they show up again, they get a beating. And if they show up a third time….” He trails off, indicating with a hand gesture that the outcome will not be pleasant. He also recounts a recent situation in which members of the community caught a local malandro, or criminal, robbing the Cuban doctor in the local Barrio Adentro health module: an unarmed crowd of neighbors seized the man, beat him, stripped him naked, and sent him on his way. While this sort of autonomous, local self-management of security matters may seem insignificant, it is a fundamental precondition for the deepening of dual power in Venezuela, and while it didn’t begin with the councils their empowerment in the area of security and defense promises to contribute to it.
However important reserves may be as a “direct arming of the whole people” in Lenin’s terms, we should recall that the reason that Lenin advocated the “replacement of the police and the army” is that these are “institutions divorced from the people and set against the people.” While an autonomous militia might reduce this alienation of security forces—and in this sense is certainly a positive step—the true replacement of the army and the police requires a more substantial break with the “monopoly of violence,” a decentralization of coercive force that is more firmly rooted in local structures. Such decentralized control over security matters has a long history in Venezuela—from guerrilla armies to urban Tupamaros (a Maoist-type self-defense organization)—and the communal councils have the potential to continue and build upon this history.
‘We Created Him’
Given the central role of Chávez in the Venezuelan process, any discussion of the Bolivarian Revolution in terms of dual power clearly requires an adjustment of prevailing categories to account for Chávez’s peculiar role as, in his own words, “a subversive in power.”15 This need to adjust our concepts to accommodate Venezuelan reality is perhaps best put by Oswaldo, a veteran of the Venezuelan guerrilla struggle (himself no friend of constituted power). While agreeing that the concept of dual power has much to contribute to an understanding of the Venezuelan process, he nevertheless cautions that “we wouldn’t want to compare Chávez to Kerensky.” This is more than mere piety toward a leader: it demarcates the particular twist that the Venezuelan experience introduces into the dual power framework.
This tension between concept and reality becomes most acute when we turn to Lenin’s third criterion: that dual power is not legislated, but rather directly seized from below. While opposing dual power—the “direct initiative of the people from below”—to “a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament” might at first glance seem to objectively exclude the experience of Venezuela’s communal councils (these were, after all, a legislative creation), the reality is not so simple. This is because from the beginning, the Bolivarian Revolution has been fundamentally driven from below, and not in the pedestrian, electoral sense.16 For example, Chávez’s 1992 attempted coup—although unsuccessful—was in many ways a direct result of the 1989 Caracazo riot, a massive and spontaneous week-long popular rebellion which spread across the entire country in response to neoliberal structural adjustment. As Juan Contreras, head of the revolutionary Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, puts it: “Chávez didn’t create the movements, we created him.”
The importance of base-level organization, moreover, did not dissipate after Chávez was elected in 1998. In the run-up to the 1999 referendum approving the new Constitution, spontaneous reading groups formed with the goal of studying, understanding, and later defending their new Magna Carta. These reading groups would become the Bolivarian Circles, revolutionary neighborhood organizations (and arguable predecessors to the communal councils) which while fervently supporting Chávez and the revolution have consistently resisted all efforts at formal institutionalization. During the 2002 coup against Chávez, these same Bolivarian Circles as well as other base organizations proved their revolutionary dual power credentials as clearly as they had during the Caracazo: first on April 11 on Llaguno Bridge, where armed Chavistas and members of Bolivarian Circles battled the opposition-controlled Metropolitan Police, holding them at bay for hours to protect unarmed crowds, and later on April 13 when millions of Chavistas swarmed around Miraflores Palace, Fort Tiuna in Caracas, and the Parachute Regiment in Maracay, playing a key part in the military effort to oust the illegitimate interim government and return Chávez to power.
Such events are crucial moments in the history of Venezuelan dual power, demonstrating the capacity of the populace to, in Lenin’s terms, directly seize power from below. But this is not all they show: the relationship between the 1989 Caracazo and the failed 1992 Chávez coup, and between the April 11, 2002, opposition coup against Chávez and the April 13 popular insurgency that returned him to power also indicate a complex top-bottom dialectic between Chávez and the bases which has been a defining feature of the Venezuelan experience. As a result, we find ourselves in the peculiar situation in which even the most radically anti-state and anti-institutional segments of popular base organizations recognize Chávez’s importance for the process of building dual power.
This is perhaps clearest in the Tupamaros, one of the most important dual power forces active in Venezuela. In a 2003 manifesto, the Tupamaros attack those corrupt party politicians who would “re-institutionalize the country,” thereby maintaining the traditional structures of the bourgeois state.17 For the Tupamaros, the revolutionary path is an explicitly anti-institutional one: “The state and its networks, woven through years of domination, do not allow reformist solutions.” Their goal is instead “to encourage dual power by strengthening popular participation, to link, organize, and multiply autonomous social forces.” To this end, they propose communal councils composed of workers and peasants which would represent a “local power that through popular assemblies, without the institutional influence of any sort, would be able to plan, orient, and execute the social force capable of demystifying constituted power.” Here we see the Tupamaros linking the building of dual power directly to communal councils, and doing so precisely through a distinction between constituent and constituted power.
This anti-institutionalist vision—emphasizing as it does the harnessing of constituent power to build a viable dual power alternative—does not exclude participation by those within the state apparatus: for the Tupamaros, the line dividing revolutionaries from reformists cuts across the state structure itself. Specifically, the National Assembly (circa 2003) was seen as a reformist talking-shop, the spearhead of the bourgeois offensive against the revolution. Chávez, in contrast, falls on the side of the revolutionary forces as a result of his “historical role,” that of “a statesman dedicated to the voice of the people.” Despite being surrounded by opportunists, the Tupamaros credit Chávez with “having awakened the abandoned from their lethargy to put the people on the offensive,” that is, Chávez is seen as having activated constituent power toward the construction of dual power. In order to counteract efforts by some sectors of Chavismo to demobilize the population and thereby halt the revolution, the Tupamaros even advocated that the president invoke constitutional powers to dissolve the Assembly.
This seemingly paradoxical effort to construct dual power in alliance with certain segments of the state has also entered into Tupamaro strategy. In 2004 the electoral wing of the Tupamaro movement supported Chavista mayoral candidate Alexis Toledo in the state of Vargas, and upon being elected, Toledo named Tupamaro leader José Pinto police chief of Vargas. To put this development in perspective, we might compare it to Huey P. Newton being put in charge of the Oakland Police Department, and while some Tupamaros have expressed concern about entering into electoral politics, few could argue that to have an anti-state revolutionary in charge of the police represents a step backward in terms of the construction of dual power in Venezuela.
Roland Denis has expressed a similar vision of dual power animated by the intervention of the constituent masses. Contemporary revolutionary movements, Denis tells us, “now focus their attention on cultivating and extending popular power through the permanent reanimation of the constituent power of the people. The old slogan of ‘dual power’ (bourgeois and working-class) valid for the summit of the revolutionary movement today becomes a permanent strategy in accord with the need for the organization of a socialized and non-state power.”18
He proposes “governments of resistance” to carry out local administration tasks, and in fact Denis claims that the councils themselves resulted from a series of meetings held with popular organizations during his short-lived stint as vice-minister of planning and development following the 2002 coup.19 For Denis as for the Tupamaros, the communal councils are central to a dual power strategy informed by constituent power, and perhaps the best evidence of applying the concept of dual power to the Venezuelan context lies in the fact that this proponent of “non-state power” heads up an organization deemed the “April 13th Movement,” named for the day that the Venezuelan masses showed their true dual power credentials, invoking their authority as a constituent power to return Chávez to his position within the structure of constituted power.
In an attempt to clarify Chávez’s peculiar role in the construction of dual power in Venezuela, former Vice President José Vicente Rangel puts it bluntly: “Chávez is anti-power; Chávez is the one that moves things, within power and outside power. Why? Because Chávez is a man who has decontextualized power, demystified it, brought it closer to the people, managed to connect it with the common and everyday citizen.”20
Rangel also refers to this role as that of a “counterpower…exercised outside of constituted power” and against that established structure.21 This, of course, is insufficient: Chávez is neither anti-power nor counter-power. It is only the revolutionary base movements and the nascent communal councils that merit such a title. But against many of Chávez’s critics, we must recognize that the Venezuelan leader has indeed contributed to this anti-power or counter-power—in short, to the construction of dual power—in a significant and decisive manner.
Dual Power and the State
In most contemporary debates regarding the Venezuelan Revolution, both sides have remained mesmerized and thereby blinkered by an overly simplistic view of the state as a homogeneous unit. The resulting debate has been less than useful: must we change the world without taking power, or is it only by taking power that we can indeed change the world?22 By concentrating on the construction of dual power in Venezuela, we can avoid this naïve debate by focusing on the more constructive question: that of distinguishing between those forces working within-and-for the perpetuation of the traditional state structure and those working within-and-against that same structure, toward its dissolution.
Dual power situations are by definition unstable and ridden with threats. Given the role that some sectors of the state apparatus have played in fostering the construction of dual power in Venezuela, these threats are all the more complex and difficult to discern. What is clear is that the most fundamental of these threats is that the communal councils will never manage to assert their autonomy from the state. This will be all the more difficult given their current reliance on oil income, and so the long-term process of endogenous local economic development and the transition away from an oil-based economy is of the utmost importance to the strengthening of communal power. But since any significant transformation in the structure of the Venezuelan economy is unlikely in the short term, what is more likely is that Venezuelan revolutionary movements will continue to operate as they have for decades: strategically, advancing where the enemy retreats, gradually consolidating the communal councils as a viable dual power force capable of competing with and radically transforming the existing state structure.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a doctoral candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley, who is writing a dissertation on revolutionary subjectivity in Sorel, Negri, and Fanon. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Journal of Black Studies, Qui Parle, Radical Philosophy Review, The Commoner, Human Architecture, and Listening. He lives in Caracas, where he contributes to Counterpunch and MRzine.
1. This and subsequent references are drawn from V. I. Lenin, “The Dual Power,” Pravda, n. 28 (April 9, 1917), http://www.marx.org.
2. Of course, Lenin also speaks of the class content of the Soviets, but this is not a criterion of any dual power per se. Rather, it explains the Soviets’ antagonistic relation to the bourgeois Provisional Government. It is a basic premise of my argument that dual power can be constituted in geographical—and not necessarily class—terms (although class is never absent, and often explains why certain sectors oppose the existing state). For an insightful discussion of Zapatista dual power which turns the concept explicitly toward autonomous municipalities, see Christopher Day, “Dual Power in the Selva Lacandon,” in R. San Filippo, ed., A New World in Our Hearts (Oakland: AK Press, 2003), 17–31.
3. República Bolivariana de Venezuela, Asamblea Nacional, “Ley de los Consejos Comunales” (April 7, 2006).
4. “Consejos comunales han sido una experiencia exitosa,” Últimas Noticias (April 7, 2007).
5. El Nacional, January 12, 2007.
6. Antonio Negri, Insurgencies, trans. M. Boscagli (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 268–292. Here, Lenin appears as the high point in thinking about constituent power in the Western tradition. See also Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution, trans. C. Boudin (New York: Monthly Review, 2005), 41, where Chávez recalls reading Negri while in prison following the failed 1992 coup.
7. Despite being derived in some sense from Negri’s philosophy, in what follows I will be more interested in how the concept of constituent power is used in Venezuela than what it means for Negri. In fact, once placed in its context, the Venezuelan understanding of constituent power is arguably closer to Enrique Dussel’s formulation of potentia against potestas, which resists exaggerating the opposition between these two terms, instead emphasizing the need to work toward a disalienation of institutional structures and representation. See his 20 tesis de la política (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 2006), forthcoming in English as 20 Theses on Politics, trans. G. Ciccariello-Maher.
8. Asociación Bolivariana de Noticias, “Ejecutivo asignará más de Bs. 590 millardos para consejos comunales” (February 15, 2007).
9. For Dussel, revocable mandates are the key to the radical nature of the Venezuelan Revolution. See Articles 6, 70, and 72 of the Bolivarian Constitution, as well as Dussel, 20 tesis, 147–49. Later this year, some 208 elected officials—from state governors to municipal mayors—could be subject to recall, depending on the capacity of their opponents to collect the requisite number signatures.
10. “No más de 6 millones para altos funcionarios,” Panorama Digital (January 12, 2007).
11. Últimas Noticias (April 17, 2007).
12. Hugo Chávez Frías, ¡Aló Presidente! no. 216 (March 20, 2005).
13. In this sense, I disagree with Christopher Day’s conclusions in his discussion of Zapatista dual power (“Dual Power in the Selva Lacandon”). While Day can be credited with emphasizing the tensions that emerge when military strategy is at issue, he seems to welcome the monopoly of violence too readily.
14. Asociación Bolivariana de Noticias, “Consejos comunales se incorporarán a comités de Seguridad y Defensa” (February 28, 2007).
15. Interview on José Vicente Hoy (March 4, 2007).
16. For a similar if less assertive argument, see Steve Ellner, “Las estrategias ‘desde arriba’ y ‘desde abajo’ del movimiento de Hugo Chávez,” Cuadernos del CENDES 23, no. 62 (May–August 2006), 73–93.
17. This and subsequent quotations drawn from Movimiento Revolucionario Tupamaro, “Manifiesto del Movimiento Revolucionario Tupamaro al Pueblo en General,” July 19, 2003.
18. Roland Denis, “Revolución vs. Gobierno (III): De la Izquierda Social a la Izquierda Política,” Proyecto Nuestramérica-Movimiento 13 de Abril (August 11, 2006).
19. Mónica Bergos, “Es necesario ir más allá de la vigente Constitución bolivariana,” Periódico Diagonal 42 (November 23–December 4, 2007). Denis claims that his eventual removal from the ministry was the result of a powerful reaction by conservative sectors of the Venezuelan state and Chavista movement.
20. Eleazar Díaz Rangel, “José Vicente Rangel: ‘Chavéz es el antipoder,’” Últimas Noticias (February 11, 2007), 40–41.
21. José Vicente Rangel, “Contrapoder,” Últimas Noticias (April 16, 2007), 26.
22. See for example the recent “debate on power,” including thinkers such as John Holloway, Hilary Wainwright, Tariq Ali, and Phil Hearse, http://marxsite.com.