I was going to wait to release this interview until I got a Spanish translation, but because of the egregious capitulation of Drexel University to white nationalist trolls who were throwing a temper tantrum over a joke by Ciccariello-Maher poking fun at the Chicken Little cry of “White Genocide” often made by the Far Right, a “genocide” not by murder or sterilization but by “miscegenation” and immigration. Considering that the United States is a colony and not in anyway a “traditional white land,” this claim of genocide is ridiculous. And yet Ciccariello-Maher is now being threatened by his employer Drexel University. So please, take some time to call or email Drexel University and calmly tell them that you support Ciccariello-Maher and academic freedom, and oppose universities caving in to white nationalism:
And you can sign a Change.org petition as well.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a writer, radical political theorist, and currently Associate Professor of Politics at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He has taught radical theory and politics at Drexel, U.C. Berkeley, San Quentin State Prison, and the Venezuelan School of Planning in Caracas. His first book, a history of revolutionary movements in Venezuela entitled We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, was published by Duke University Press in 2013. He has had two books published this year: Decolonizing Dialectics and Building the Commune: Venezuela’s Radical Democracy (part of the Jacobin-Verso series). He also made my day when he told me that he liked this blog, so after reading Building the Commune I of course asked if I could do a quick interview with him over email.
Building the Commune is not just a detailed history of the communes of Venezuela from those who built them but a challenge to decolonize the traditional Marxist ideas of popular
movements and the state. It makes a strong case for the continued importance of Venezuela to the praxis and theory of the international Left, particularly as made by the actions of indigenous people, women, and youth rather than formulated in some academic essay. You can pick up a copy from Verso.
HQ: In US hegemony, the commune is often depicted as the epitome of hippie naivety, a poorly organized group of young white hipsters camping in the woods until they get tired of the hard work and retreat to the comfort of urban capitalism. How is the commune thought of in Venezuela, and how has the concept changed over time?
Ciccariello-Maher: The commune has a long history, in Venezuela and elsewhere, and one of the tasks of the present is to excavate that history and draw out the threads that unite it. This is easier said than done, however, because to discover the untold history of something you need to know what the thing is, but predetermining that what runs the risk of overdetermining its content. The way this happens most often with the commune is to search out direct historical echoes of the 1871 Paris Commune or to look for examples that look like what happened in Paris. But the danger is that this erases both struggles prior to 1871 and struggles that don’t arrive at the presumed perfection of Paris. Instead, we need to seek out those struggles geared toward a broad notion like what Marx called the “self-government of producers.”
In Venezuela, such struggles predate Paris by a long shot: indigenous communities and escaped slaves (cimarrones) struggled against both colonial Spain and the white elites who would lead and dominate independence struggles, and indigenous rebellions like that of Tupác Amaru II in Peru provoked comunero rebellions in Colombia that spilled into Venezuela. These informed the development of heterodox Marxisms and revolutionary thinkers involved in the 1960s armed struggle who would go on to rethink the commune in Venezuela, giving rise to what one — Kléber Ramírez Rojas (a co-conspirator of Hugo Chávez) — would call the “commoner state.” This vision, which he also deemed a “government of popular insurgency,” sought to revision the Venezuelan state from the bottom-up, as a sort of confederation of self-governing councils.
HQ: I’m sure it isn’t too surprising that I’m really interested in the laws that you write about in the book, especially since the Chavista state has a radical constitution and has been able to pass laws that few other countries in the world have. What role has the law played in the history of the communes? How has legal recognition, or in some cases lack thereof, effected communes financially and politically?
Ciccariello-Maher: The story of the law is one of the most interesting stories in contemporary Venezuela. Ever since the new Bolivarian Constitution was written in 1999, there has been a very public reverence for the law, with many people carrying around miniature copies of the Constitution, reading it, and referring to it often. But this is far from a blind reverence: the Constitution is revered because it is understood as the product of grassroots participation, with social movements playing a major role in its drafting and grassroots Bolivarian Circles forming to discuss, debate, change, and finally approve it. The result is a sort of revolutionary reverence that is reflected in its constituent content, as a constitution that defends the right of the people to intervene in all levels of society, to elect and recall leaders, and of course to transform the Constitution itself. In other words, against what the philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussel would call a fetishism of the law and constitutions — the U.S. Constitution of course being among themost fetishized — in Venezuela there is a widespread anti-fetishistic understanding: we made the law, and we too can change it if need be.
The implications for the communes are very interesting. The reactionary opposition holds up the Constitution to insist that the communes are illegal — and it’s true that they are extra-legal. But every radical change is extra-legal, including the decision to write a new constitution from whole cloth. But this is a cynical opposition that opposed the new Constitution to begin with, and today brandishes it as a shield against the future. The grassroots haven’t waited for the law to build communes, the law has come since, offering the double-edged sword of all law and state: strengthening the commmunes, helping them expand, but also threatening from above the constituent energy they represent from below.
HQ: Much like the multitude of comuneras and comuneros you quote in the book, your portrayal of the Venezuelan state is complicated. In particular José Miguel Gómez described it as “accompaniment from the state, not leadership…You don’t consult with us, you debate politics with us” (pg. 109). What is this complicated relationship between the communes and the Chavista state, and what is “the communal state” (pg. 128)?
Ciccariello-Maher: Between the state and the communes there exists and open contradiction, even a war. This sounds strange, since we are often told that the Bolivarian Revolution is a purely state-led populist project from above. But despite the fact that key sectors of the state have supported the communes — Chávez and today Nicolás Maduro in particular — the horizon toward which the communes support is, to borrow Marx’s words on the Paris Commune — that of “a revolution against the state itself.” On an everyday level, comuneros and comuneras confront state bureaucrats, local elected officials, and party leaders who are openly hostile to communal power — and most are Chavistas. This antagonism makes perfect sense: locally, the communes cut into the funding, authority, and legitimacy of leaders and officials, and do so according to a very different logic characterized by grassroots direct democracy. And ultimately, they point toward the destruction and replacement of that bloated monstrosity that is the Venezuelan state itself.