Toward Revolution and Collective Leadership

Against the Current, No. 161, November/December 2012

an interview with Andrés Antillano

Andrés Antillano was interviewed August 7, 2012 by Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber. Other reports and interviews are online at Susan Spronk teaches international development at the University of Ottawa. She is a research associate with the Municipal Services Project ( and has published various articles on working-class formation and water politics in Latin America. Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Red October: Left Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Haymarket, 2012).

Against the Current: As an introduction, can you speak about your own personal history and political formation?

Andrés Antillano: At the moment I’m a militant in the Movimiento de Pobladores (Poor Peoples’ Movement, MP). In the 1980s I was a student leader, and in 1985 I moved to a popular barrio in the southeast of Caracas called La Vega. I became involved in the grassroots movements of La Vega, left-wing militancy, and militancy in the comunidades eclesiasticas de base (Grassroots Christian Communities, CEBs).

La Vega has its own particular history as a barrio of Caracas, its own history of popular organization, which was substantially religious, because of the character of those militants with a history in the popular struggle of the barrio. Historically the militants of the popular organizations of La Vega have had good relations with the Catholic grassroots workers in the barrio, who adopted the “preferential option for the poor” at the heart of liberation theology.

At the beginning of 1990, I was involved in an important initiative called the Asamblea de Barrios de Caracas (Assembly of Popular Neighborhoods of Caracas, ABC), which enabled the articulation of various popular neighborhoods of Caracas, and the construction of programs of struggle for the barrios around the pressing issues that were facing them. The emergence of the assemblies coincided with the crisis of representative democracy, of punto fijismo,1 the emergence of the “patriotic military” factions [from which Hugo Chávez emerged — ed.], and a resurgence of movements of the masses that were breaking with this entire regime that we were living through.

All these developments were necessary for the “process of change” that we are now living through under Chávez. The Barrio Assemblies became an extremely important reference point for many of the popular struggles of the period. Although the life of the assemblies was ephemeral — existing really between 1991 and 1993 — they laid the basis for a platform of struggle for the residents of the popular barrios of Caracas in their urban resistance.

Later, in 2002 we formed part of a technical team, advising the government around a proposal for regularizing land titling in the popular barrios of Caracas, and throughout the rest of Venezuela — for juridical security for the occupants of squatted land, the ordering of the barrios, everything that’s involved in urban planning that does not submit to the logic of the market. Part of this was ensuring that the popular barrios had access to all of the basic services that the state provided to the rest of the city.

This experience, the experience of the Comité de Tierras Urbanas (Urban Land Committees, CUT), became an axis of urban popular struggles. And it was out of this that the Poor Peoples’ Movement (MP) was formed in 2005, which is an umbrella organization of various urban popular movements — the movement of families without houses, movements of the barrios, movements of those occupying buildings, movements representing impoverished families displaced by landslides when it rains — linked to the right to housing, but whose agenda goes much beyond this basic right.

The MP is a movement that brings together these distinct expressions and raises the call for urban revolution and an end to the way capital determines that the city excludes many of its inhabitants. The MP works for education, solidarity, and equality in the urban environment.

ATC: Can you explain the significance of the Polo Patriótico, and the role of the Poor Peoples’ Movement (MP) within this wider grouping?

AA: One of the unresolved tasks of the revolution has been the formation of a collective leadership capable of expressing the totality (conjunto) of forces that constitute the revolutionary camp. I think that this absence of an organic leadership has to do with the historical conditions from which this revolutionary process emerged.

The Venezuelan case is quite distinct, for example, from Bolivia, and in certain ways from the case of Ecuador. The revolution in Venezuela has not been the result of an accumulation of struggles sustained by historical forces of social movements, as was the case in Bolivia, through which the political instrument of the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS) was created.

In Venezuela, all the traditional left parties were in decline because of the profound ideological and political crisis suffered during the 1980s. And in its place, the organized popular movement was incapable of leading the intense cycle of social struggle that exploded between 1989 and the moment when Chávez came to power in 1999.

If the popular movement played an important part in this cycle of struggle, it’s evident that it was lacking the capability to lead. It was a cycle of struggle that was not entirely spontaneous, but neither was the popular movement capable of providing leadership. The result is that the revolutionary process in Venezuela has its incarnation in an individual figure rather than an organic collective leadership.

The 1990s saw a surge of various mass struggles, but this did not translate immediately into an organic leadership. Something similar happened in Argentina. The movement of the masses did not find expression in an organized instrument of the people. Therefore the figure of Hugo Chávez is to a certain degree a solitary figure.

Another aspect of the Venezuelan process is that the popular insurrection here has been an insurrection against traditional forms of representation. None of the unions, the parties, various types of vanguards, whether they be reformist or connected to parties of the traditional left, have been capable of expressing the resurgence of the masses, because the particular type of resurgence we have seen has been against the delegation of political power, and rather for direct political control.

The 1989 Caracazo, for example, was an expression of direct political power on the part of the people without mediation of any kind.2 This moment had very particular forms of the direct exercise of political power.

Paradox of Chávez and the PSUV

These characteristics together help to explain the phenomenon of Chávez as some kind of paradoxical, egalitarian caudillo (big man leader). Chávez has been the boss, without being the boss, caudillo without being caudillo — the kind of figure that has been a part of Venezuelan peasant struggles stretching back historically, the clearest example being Simón Bolívar. The idea of the egalitarian caudillo was the negation of the delegation of political power. This phenomenon has made it difficult to build a collective political reference point with the capacity to bring together all of the various popular social forces.

We also need to add another element, which is the perverse role that the state plays in this dynamic, particularly the role of oil rent [revenues — ed.] in the administration of politics and economics in this country. Today, as in the period of oligarchic hegemony, the objective of social organizations has been gaining access to parts of the state in order to control a portion of the oil rent, rather than to organize the autonomous struggles of the people.

These factors together have meant that it has been difficult to build an organizational structure capable of bringing together all of the popular social forces that constitute the basis of the revolutionary process.  Nonetheless, there have been various attempts to do just this.

One attempt was the creation of the Bolivarian Circles in 2001. Before that there was the Movimiento Quinta República (Fifth Republic Movement, MQR), which became little more than an electoral platform. It didn’t have much relevance among the masses — obviously it was efficient electorally, but didn’t move beyond this; it didn’t function as a party of the masses.

Chávez himself came to power through the unity of political parties of the left called Polo Patriótico in the electoral campaign of 1998, a unity that was maintained until 2001, when some parties abandoned the coalition and joined the right-wing opposition.

So there have been various attempts to build a united, organic political space. The latest attempt was the creation of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV) announced in December 2006 and created in 2007. It was the product of a political moment directly after Chávez’s massive electoral victory in 2006. So it emerged in a moment of high legitimacy, and the thesis of a united party of the revolution was advanced, in this context, to bring together the various forces at the heart of the revolutionary process.

The construction of the PSUV came shortly after the declaration in 2005 that the revolutionary process would be socialist in orientation. This is an important element in understanding the decision to form this party. It signified a shift away from managing politics in a more or less conventional manner towards a national-popular orientation, of national liberation, in the classical terms of the socialist tradition.

The new orientation was a shift away from the idea that the revolution was fundamentally Bolivarian and nationalist, toward the idea that the revolution would be socialist. The idea was that this socialist project required new levels of organization, and that this would be realized through the founding a new socialist party. However, in spite of calling itself a socialist party, there were serious contradictions in the multi-class character of the party’s platform, embracing everyone from business people to sectors of the working class.

The party was initially able to register millions of members, to express the key nodal points of the organizations of the masses, at an objective high point in mass struggle, and to win people to the idea that the party was going to be a strategic instrument through which to respond to the demands that they had raised through their local struggles.

However, the way in which the party was formed, and the intervention in the party of sectors closely linked to the state bureaucracy — remember this problem I mentioned of the state being the principal mechanism that determines economic and political activity — meant that the party quickly bureaucratized and became an appendage of the state.

Shortly after the PSUV was formed the revolution suffered its first strategic defeat in the 2007 elections when the bid for constitutional reform was lost — the attempt to transform the political orientation of a transition toward socialism into a constitutional platform. This was a significant failure.

In no way did the PSUV transform itself into the party of the masses in the way that the President, and the masses themselves, had expected. On the contrary, it has become more bureaucratized by the day, with less and less capacity for social mobilization. This became perhaps most evident in the parliamentary elections of 2009, which represented a significant reversal in the number of votes won by Chavismo.

In the wake of this defeat, the President and the process went through a serious period of self-criticism, out of which, interestingly, the President advanced a series of political theses that signified the radicalization rather than the tactical retreat of the process — calling for an intensification of the class struggle, the intensification of social polarization, the accentuation of the mobilization of the people, and a revision of the way the government had been governing.

The idea was to work on further developing the PSUV as a party that would bring under its umbrella those sectors that had not yet felt comfortable inside of it, particularly parties and social movements that were close allies of the PSUV — to create a more significant popular unity out of this process of self-criticism.

An idea, first expressed in institutional form in the 1998 elections, was taken up again — the Polo Patriótico, which was now meant to be a political space in which not only all the political parties in favor of the process would find a home, but also all those social sectors supporting the process of Chavismo./p>

However, in spite of the fact that the President called for this initiative, the initiative did not make progress. I believe that there was an effort on the part of the bureaucratic layers of the revolution to strangle this initiative, or to mediate it, and control it.

I am not speaking only of the bureaucratic sectors of the party, because the bureaucracy is not restricted only to this. If there is an important bureaucratization in the party, and in the state, there is also a bureaucratic layer within the popular movement itself. The popular movement has itself been bureaucratized to a certain degree, and its capacity to mobilize has been hampered by the clientelistic behavior of its internal bureaucratic leadership.

In 2011, a number of popular organizations saw what was happening inside  the Polo Patriótico and decided to enter it and to attempt to transform it into an instrument of the popular movement.  The social organizations involved were very important ones, like the Frente Campesino (Peasant Front), the Movimiento de Pobladores (MP), communitarian media groups, and radical unions, amongst others, and they agreed to attempt to open up the debate publicly around the character of the Polo Patriótico.

We conducted a series of mobilizations with the effort of transforming the Polo Patriótico into an instrument that would be authentically of and for the people.

ATC: From your perspective, what are the most important popular organizations in the current conjuncture?

Retreat or Regeneration?

AA: My perception is that the popular movement and popular organizations are presently experiencing an ebb in their capacities. There has been a retreat in the level of popular organization and popular mobilization that is quite significant.

The revolutionary process from 1998 until 2004, and again in 2007, was a period of high levels of popular organization and struggle, a continual series of high points in struggle, a period of incredible dynamism. My sense is that there is now an attempt to develop a thermidorian reaction, to channel, to capture, administer these popular forces, and to distinguish their capacities to act in a critical way. This is a product of the overarching mentality of the bureaucracy, developing in the last few years. [“Thermidor” refers to the month of the suppression of the radical wing of the French revolution in 1793 — ed.]

At the same time, this is not to say, that there are not contradictory forces at play going the other way. It is not to say that the thermidorian attempt has been entirely successful in imposing itself. There’s still an important social force that points in the other direction, that continues to work toward building the capacities of the popular movement, and to call into question the bureaucratization of the state, of the institutions, of their functionaries. This social force remains the principal source of challenges to the status quo.

There is therefore a dialectic between a conservative force within the revolutionary process, which tries to weaken popular participation, and an insurgent force that combats these attempts at every turn.  But at the moment this dialectic has resulted in a certain crippling of popular organization, a significant level of demoralization.

One example is the communal councils, which were important expressions of the organization and power of the grassroots, and there are still many that remain so. But in many other cases, the communal councils were rapidly transformed into mere administrators of resources, or areas of intermediation between a series of different state institutions. Many communal councils have, through this process, become bureaucratized and pacified, and separated from their popular bases.

This complexity characterizes the current political moment. We can simplify slightly and say that there are two forces that are disputing for hegemony in the popular camp — the attempt at bureaucratic control over, and cooptation of popular organizations, and the debilitation of certain popular organizations that no longer have the capacity to mobilize and organize; and others that continue to defend a logic of autonomy and combat, in other words continue to be the motor of this revolution.

In the latter of these you find various struggles that are quite localized, including certain communal councils, land committees, and so on, and others that have a larger national base, such as the Peasant Front, union organizations, the MP, the alternative media collectives.

The groups that help constitute this second force have come together formally to form an umbrella group called the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Popular Alliance, APR). It was formed in May 2012, and attempts to be the expression of the bigger, national groups that make up this second force.

The APR includes the MP as well as a peasant front called the Corriente Revolucionaria Bolívar y Zamora (Bolívar and Zamara Revolutionary Current, CRBZ), Asociación Nacional de Medios Comunitarios Libres y Alternativos (National Association of Free and Alternative Media, ANMCLA), Alianza sexo-género diversa revolucionaria (Revolutionary Alliance of Sex-Gender, and Diversity, ASGDR), Socialistas por la Unidad Revolucionaria hacia al Comunismo (Socialists for Revolu­tionary Unity toward Communism, SURCO), Movimiento Campesino Jirajara (Jirajara Peasant Movement, MCJ), Faldas en Revolución (Skirts in the Revolution, FR), Insurgencia Comunista (Communist Insurgency, IC), Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide, MS), and the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar de Guarenas (Simon Bolívar Coordinator of Guarenas, CSBG).

ATC: Against this backdrop, what is the importance of the forthcoming elections, on October 7, 2012?

AA: We have always insisted that within bourgeois democracy elections have tended toward demobilization and depoliticization. Revolutionary democracy, on the other hand, signifies the ongoing politicization of the people, the deepening of their political organization.

As I suggested, there are two forces disputing for hegemony in the popular camp, and this dispute finds its natural expression inside the electoral process as well. These can either be elections absent of meaning, depoliticized, with banners and little else, or these can be elections that take up again the more authentic character of this revolutionary process, the radicalization, politicization, and the construction of socialism and popular power. These are the tensions that exist in the present moment.

Beginning from this thesis, the elections need to be used as a platform for strengthening the political capacities of the people, and heightening the consciousness of the people. We can see this for example in discussions around the electoral platform of Chávez, and how to relate the many immediate demands emerging from local struggles to an overarching program, in the choreography of the electoral struggle, in the mobilization of the people in the present moment, and placing at the center of everything the central historic demands that have emerged from the people.

From our perspective, this is what has to be kept foremost in mind. Without doubt, as in every election in Venezuela, the elections will also be a battle between the domestic reactionary forces and imperialism, on the one hand, and the revolutionary forces on the other. If the campaign is depoliticized, this will favor the forces of reaction, and if the elections are politicized and employed as a way of deepening the political organization of the people, this will favour the revolutionary forces.

This is one of the constant tensions of a revolutionary process conducted democratically — there is always the possibility of not rising to the hopes of the people, and losing legitimacy. Responding to the hopes of the people cannot merely mean constructing effective media campaigns. It must mean engaging in the politicization of the people.

ATC: Since 2005, Chávez has been employing the rhetoric of socialism for the 21st century. What does socialism mean for the people organized from below?

AA: I think the biggest challenge facing Venezuela today is how to conceptualize socialism after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Without doubt, a good part of the revolutionary forces have assumed a distance from what was called “really existing socialism” in the 20th century.

Evidently, the crisis that the Soviet bloc entered, and the explosion of liberal rhetoric around the “end of history” and so on, have had an ideological impact on even being able to think about socialism. And the problem isn’t only ideological; it also has to do with the new transformations of capitalism itself.

Capitalism has changed in its nature, its forms of coordination, of exploitation — for example, the domination of capital doesn’t have as its principal form the factory any longer, the form that used to concentrate the labor-capital contradiction. The themes of housing, territorial dispossession, the struggle for natural resources, cultural struggles, are expressions of new fields of the capital-labor contradiction that were not foreseen in the classical socialist programs of the revolutionary left formulated at the close of the 19th century.

So there is an ideological crisis, but there also is a reconfiguration of capital that has, in turn, meant a reconfiguration of struggles against capital and the programs of resistance against capital.

It is against this backdrop that the President raised the question of how to understand socialism in a new context, in a context in which the old socialism is recognized to have failed. This discourse has opened up a whole series of openings, alternatives, and opportunities. How to construct socialism from within this new reality?

I don’t know what socialism would mean in universal terms. I believe it means certain important things in the Venezuelan case, but I also think, more generally, that it’s a methodology. Socialism is configured through concrete struggles thrown up by the people — the struggle of the indigenous for their territories, the struggle for the defense of nature, the struggle for urban space, the cultural struggle. All of these are concrete struggles that enrich the ideal of socialism.

After Neoliberalism

Returning to an earlier question, in the case of Venezuela, we can note that the period between 1998 and the revocation referendum of 2004 was the high point of popular mobilization and struggle. This was a moment that broke neoliberalism, and neoliberalism was replaced with a strengthening of the state. Even the right-wing candidates cannot talk in neoliberal terms, but rather need to campaign with social democratic platforms.

Neoliberalism is obviously their real program, but it is totally impossible, it would be totally unacceptable, for them to speak plainly about advancing that kind of program today in Venezuela, to talk openly about privatization and the extension of the market. This kind of neoliberalism has been ideologically and politically defeated. And this is not a small thing to have achieved in this era of globalization and the Washington Consensus, which had been accepted not only by the right but by the majority of the reformist left as well.

This means that the contradictions facing Venezuela today are of another type — not  how to struggle against neoliberalism but how to confront the strengthening of state capitalism, in which rebuilding the capacity of the state, rather than guaranteeing the democratization of the means of production in the hands of the people, has meant merely the transfer of oil rent, and the formation of a new layer of privileged elite within the state.

This is a grave danger facing this revolution, not that there will be a historic transformation but rather a transfer of power from one elite to another. The Venezuelan state has been through such transfers since the 1950s, when oil became dominant, to the 1980s and 1990s during the neoliberal epoch, and then to today with the strengthening of state capitalism.

The strengthening of the state, the increase in social investment on the part of the state, the increase in the economic and political capacities of the state — if all of this was tactically beneficial for the defeat of neoliberalism, it certainly does not guarantee a transition toward a new society.

I believe that, in this sense, the current debate centers around the meaning of this rebuilding state capacity — which in Venezuela is of essential importance because of the role of oil rent. In this historic moment the production of wealth doesn’t have to do with factories, production for markets, which factory workers could appropriate for themselves, but rather with the redistribution of the oil rent. Will the distribution of this rent favor a new elite, or will it be controlled by the people in their interests?

In the Venezuelan case, I think this means that the people have to assume effective control over the mechanisms of political decision-making. The forms of cooptation, of clientelism, the reduction of the idea of change within the popular sectors to controlling little bits of the oil rent, is a form of reinforcing state capitalism in this country.

The proper response is for the people to assume higher levels of participation, and control over the state. This is a fundamental component of what needs to be done for a transition toward socialism in Venezuela, together with the development of experiences of self-governance that could guarantee social-economic sovereignty, and social organization, beyond the question of oil rent.


    1. An exclusionary two-party system of representational democracy was initiated in 1958 with the Punto Fijo pact.

    2. The Caracazo, named for the events in the capital city of Caracas in February 1989, involved protests and rioting against the introduction of neoliberalism across the entire country. Carlos Andrés Pérez had just been elected on an anti-neoliberal platform but quickly attempted to ram an orthodox restructuring program down the throats of Venezuelans. The president decided to make an example of the protesters, and the urban poor more generally, giving the green light for military and police repression for days, killing a large number of people. Estimates range from 300 to 3,000 dead.

November/December 2012, ATC 161