Back to the Future: The Long Roots of Venezuela’s Communal Tradition

Image by Ronal Labrador.

Socialist communes may be new in Venezuela – officially, they began no earlier than 2009 – but, like much that is new, they also rely on old traditions and hence involve a “blast from the past.” On a certain level, it is hardly surprising that overcoming the radical atomization of capitalist society could be fueled by elements of past social formations in as much as these later, especially those dating from prehistory, were overwhelmingly communitarian. However, much of the Marxist left falls into the trap of thinking that a socialist future will be generated, if not ex nihilo, at least without reference to past epochs and their social forms. In defense of this latter approach, one can appeal to Marx himself who wrote in 1852 that bourgeois revolutions appeal to history (“to smother their content”), but proletarian revolutions take their poetry from the future.

As we shall see, Marx later revised this idea, coming to embrace the relevance of the communal past for the socialist future. However, this backward-looking shift in Marx is not well-known, and it has not kept the bulk of the socialist movement from being oblivious to the importance of communitarian pasts. Latin America may be an exception to this general theoretical trend, for the simple reason that that continent’s past weighs heavily on the present and many political movements appeal to it. In Venezuela, anthropologists Iraida Vargas and Mario Sanoja have forcefully argued for the pertinence of the region’s communal past – and the relics of communitarian practices that survive today – to the project of socialist construction. They claim that both Venezuela’s history and its long-standing cultural traditions could be the basis of the Bolivarian Process’s development of communal socialism, having uncovered some surprising links between the future that the revolution aspires to and its roots in a society whose practices of solidarity and deep-seated conceptions of equality are often shaped by Indigenous and African traditions.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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