Excerpt from “Back to the Future” by Chris Gilbert
(The full piece is behind a paywall).
Despite the change-over from Trump to Biden, the US continues its financial, commercial and clandestine attacks on Venezuela, and its claims that the country is a dictatorship, even though the Chavista Socialist Party has won numerous free and fair elections. This article examines some of the historical and theoretical bases for the Venezuelan effort to build a 21st Century socialism by relying on the country’s pre-existing communal traditions and long history of anti-colonial resistance.
“Despite having little access to the writing of the Last Marx, Marxists in Latin America were forced early on to reckon with the revolutionary potential of their own communitarian pasts, and the emancipatory potential of historical memory (perhaps because uneven development has made the past more accessible in that region). This holds true of Peru, as we have seen with Mariátegui’s work, and it also pertains to Cuba, where the philosopher and historian Fernando Martínez Heredia argued that the Cuban revolution of 1959 had deep roots in nineteenth and early twentieth-century movements for emancipation. Similar claims are also being made in Venezuela. Venezuela’s prehistoric past is less known and less studied than the Andean civilization of the Incas or that of the Aztecs in what is today Mexico. Nevertheless, the decentralized and horizontally-structured Indigenous societies of pre-colonial Venezuela deserve careful attention, in part because they provide potential bases for a socialist future, and especially for the communal construction of a post-capitalist society. Or at least that is the argument of Venezuelan anthropologists Iraida Vargas and Mario Sanoja.
“Vargas and Sanoja work as a team and often publish together. Sanoja, who is almost a decade older, is best known for his research into agrarian practices in the north of South America. That research is summarized in a small book called People of Corn and People of Yucca (1977), which highlights the importance of vegeculture, the cultivation of roots rather than grains, in shaping prehistoric Indigenous communities in much of what is today Venezuela. To write the book, Sanoja had to cast off the yoke of what could be facetiously called “Mexican cultural hegemony,” as expressed in the idea that Latin Americans are essentially people of corn.
“The problem with that idea is that it underplays the critical role of vegeculture, not only of potatoes in the Andes but of yucca in what is much of Venezuela and Brazil. Yucca is a crop that requires relatively little attention, allows for long-term storage in the ground, and, in its bitter form, is highly imperishable. Its cultivation went hand in hand with a specific kind of social formation: decentralized and mostly horizontal, with only temporary leaderships. Sanoja called these formations, “autarkic and politically independent” – in short, they were anarchists!
“For anyone who has lived some time in Venezuela, it is easy to believe the formative influence of this Indigenous past – characterized by horizontality and independence – on current society. Venezuelans’ complex attitude toward their leaders, Hugo Chávez included, to whom they pay allegiance to carry out specific tasks but at the same time treat with gratifying familiarity most of the time (as just one person among many in the collective) is one example. Then there are the collective egalitarian labor practices, cayapas, that are assumed with great enthusiasm and can be intense, lasting for days. Finally, the overall rhythm of life in the country is still mediated by cycles of struggle and festival, accompanied by a conception of time that is by no means linear and empty, but rather molded by underlying patterns of ritual.
A Very Long Revolution
“Though their intellectual trajectory dates back well into the twentieth century, Vargas and Sanoja are both enthusiastic Chavistas. Hence, when the late Hugo Chávez proposed the communal path to socialism in 2009, they began to scour the country’s prehistoric and historic past for precedents to the project of communal socialism. Th[eir] intellectual training makes them well equipped to chart the relevance of Venezuela’s past, as it survives in everyday culture, to the work of building the future. They titled their resulting work, The Long March toward Communal Society: Theses on Bolivarian Socialism (2017). The book has two main themes. On the one hand, it looks at how the “hidden nation,” made up of impoverished masses, has pushed forward an emancipatory project for more than two centuries (issuing into the Bolivarian revolution today). On the other hand, it addresses how Venezuela’s socialist project today can be based on communitarian traditions derived from diverse practices and attitudes still persisting in the society.
“This out into specific, concrete claims about regions and projects in Venezuela. For example, the authors point out how in central-western Lara state, where some of Venezuela’s most important communes exist today, there was once a huge Indigenous society that had developed proto-state structures and wide-ranging territorial control. These were the Caquetia, and part of their legacy consists of deep-rooted communitarian traditions, including a vast system of cooperatives of weavers and pottery makers which exchanged their goods in the zone. For Sanoja and Vargas, it is easy to draw a line from that past civilization to the communal present in the region, where strong community organizations such as Ataroa and El Maizal figure prominently. If this appears to be a radical form of historical telescoping, the argument is nevertheless backed up by the existence of enduring production practices, aimed at satisfying the society’s necessities, which the researcher pair calls the ‘true social cement that in the last instance supports the revolutionary or counterrevolutionary imaginary of social collectives’.”