David Broder reviews S. Sándor John’s history of Bolivian Trotskyism
It is commonplace for western leftists to reduce Bolivia to a mere appendage of developments in Venezuela and Cuba. Yet it is in Bolivia itself that there is the strongest movement from below of any country in the Americas. Despite its relative economic underdevelopment and the small size of its working class, the rich heritage of class struggle in the country is the envy of most of the rest of the world.
Moreover, Bolivia is unique for its political culture. This has been shaped by the failure of Stalinism and classical social democracy to sink roots; significant indigenous and peasant movements; it is the only country apart from Sri Lanka and Vietnam where Trotskyism has found mass influence.
S. Sándor John’s book Bolivia’s Radical Tradition is a history of Bolivian Trotskyism written by a member of a Trotskyist organisation in the USA, the Internationalist Group. It offers a valuable insight into a much-ignored history, and is also important in what it tells us about Trotskyist politics more generally.
Early Bolivian communism
The end of the First World War and the Russian revolution heralded a split in European social democracy, with the new Communist International (CI) establishing member Communist Parties (CPs) across the continent by 1921. However, in Latin America the process was rather slower.
In Bolivia there had only been a short-lived Socialist Party (established 1914) and after the war scattered groups of CI sympathisers. There was a CI-sponsored Anti-imperialist league, and in 1929 the Federación Obrera del Trabajo trade union was represented at CI-sponsored Latin American TU Conference in Montevideo. At that year’s Latin American Communist Conference it was reported that there were only Communist sympathisers in Bolivia.
From the mid-1920s Stalinism took control of most of the Communist Parties of Europe – and thus significant labour movement influence – but Moscow had only weak roots in Bolivia. 1934 saw the founding of the Agrupación Comunista network, and the following year the Provisional Secretariat of Bolivian Communist Groups. But there was still no official CP: the Partido de la Izquierda Revolucionaria (PIR), the closest thing to an imitation of a Bolivia Stalinism, was only formed in 1940.
However, the Stalin-Trotsky split did affect Bolivia. The trigger was the 1932-35 Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay (fighting for the zones of influence of Standard Oil and Shell Oil respectively), the bloodiest war since the US Civil War, forcing hundreds of thousands to emigrate. One of those émigrés, José Aguirre Gainsborg, joined the Chilean Communist Party but soon found himself siding with the Izquierda Comunista split. Much like the eponymous Spanish group, the Izquierda Comunista in Chile claimed to be ‘Bolshevik-Leninist’ (i.e. Trotskyist) but was soft on reformism, joining the Left Bloc electoral coalition and then the social-democratic Socialist Party itself.
Aguirre and Eduardo Arze saw the need to establish a revolutionary organisation in their homeland. They immediately decided that the party needed a ‘leader’, and for this position chose the writer Tristán Marof. Somewhat of a romantic revolutionary, Marof had an eccentric belief in the ‘communism’ of the pre-colonial Inca Empire and was essentially a Bolivian nationalist. Upon its foundation in 1935 the new Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) was almost exclusively supported by exiles, with around fifty members in Argentina and a hundred in the prisons of Asunción, capital of victorious Paraguay.
State socialist initiatives
From the outset the POR was confused by the existence of pre-capitalist and imperialist forms of rule in Bolivia. As Trotskyist leader Guillermo Lora later lamented, there was little effort at political clarification between the revolutionary Aguirre and Marof, meaning that the party programme effectively set the bourgeois-democratic revolution as a stage apart from socialist transformation. To demonstrate its political confusion, John cites the fact that at the POR founding congress in Córdoba, Argentina “Paraguayan Stalinist leader Oscar Creydt” and a “Bolivian Stalinist who lives in La Plata” had attended as “fraternal delegates”.
In its 1936 programme the party set out its opposition to the “feudal bourgeoisie” – as if to imply that there was another, more progressive, advanced bourgeoisie – and demanded a Constituent Assembly, without any clarification as to the nature of the Bolivian state. The lack of clarity on the nature of the state was also demonstrated in the hang-on from Marof’s Inca Justice manifesto, the slogan “land to the Indian, mines to the state”.
Marof assumed that the Bolivian ruling class and imperialism were simply the same thing, and therefore that the rich were “not Bolivian”. He had no developed understanding of the nature of the capitalist state, for example commenting to a general that, “We are not against the army which nourishes itself from the people and subordinates itself to the party of the people, which carries out the national defense of our riches, of all the goods possessed by a united society living in solidarity”… [we are] implacable enemies … of “the army which is at the service of imperialist companies and domestic millionaires. We consider that army traitorous and anti-Bolivian”.
The POR soon blew apart as émigrés returning to Bolivia at the end of the Chaco war were arrested for desertion and their activities abroad. Aguirre became a leading member of the middle-class nationalist Beta Gama group, whose ‘socialism’ was based on a vague programme of uniting those classes opposed to feudalism and imperialism.
May 1936 saw a ‘military socialist’ coup, led by Colonel David Toro. After La Paz graphic workers had sparked a general strike demanding a 100% wage increase, Toro’s men took power and flew the red flag in the Bolivian capital. The graphic workers’ leader Waldo Alvarez became minister of labour: but within months Toro had turned to anti-communist agitation and Alvarez was unseated. Toro was however keen on ties with the USSR, a potential outlet for trade if he nationalised the mines. In search of such friendship he asked Marof to sound out the Argentinian CP as to whether they would help him establish a Bolivian pro-Moscow party: amazingly, he agreed to do so, although ultimately the initiative came to nothing.
All this demonstrated the perils of ‘stageism’, hoping to carry out a struggle against feudalism and imperialism in alliance with the bourgeoisie before a separate socialist revolution. However, the POR did not systematise these lessons.
World War II
Oscar Barrientos and a small circle of friends refounded the POR in December 1938. The Bolivian Trotskyists had not been represented at the founding congress of the Fourth International (FI) that September, nor its list of 37 national sections published that October. The party grew only slowly – with seventeen full members as of 1945 – but a significant development in this period was the rise of Guillermo Lora, who would become its main leader.
Bolivia was not, of course, a World War II battleground, but the country was nonetheless significantly affected by the conflict. In 1941 Japan occupied Malaya in south-east Asia, meaning that half the tin for the Allied war effort would now come from Bolivia. This gave particular siginificance to the strike at the Catavi mine in late 1942, which was mercilessly repressed by the troops of General Enrique Peñaranda’s government. As one eye-witness reported:
“I was 15 at the time. Our parents used to send my brother and me to sell clothes and other merchandise to the miners. We were there on December 21, 1942. We saw the mobilization, when the workers came down from the company offices in Catavi. They were shouting for a wage increase and chanting “Long live the miners! Viva Bolivia”. There were explosions, the sound of machine-guns, rifles. We had to gather up the things we were selling.
“The shots were flying everywhere, but we were curious. With a certain amount of audacity, we made it to the plaza in Llallagua where the cadavers, the people whose bodies had been destroyed by machine-gun fire, were being taken. It was a scene out of Dante, there was so much blood, screams, pain. The miners didn’t have guns or even dynamite, but the soldiers were very well armed. They just opened fire on the mass of people. There were men, women, many mothers with their children, because mothers take their children to demonstrations, since there is no-one to look after them. We saw all the bodies gathered together at the kiosk in the plaza of Llallagua. We had to leave because the shooting didn’t stop…”
John explains how as thanks for his services Peñaranda was soon greeted at the White House by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who exalted the Bolivian dictator’s support for the cause of freedom and democracy. Meanwhile, the left’s reactions were mixed: after the German invasion of the USSR, Stalin (and by extension the PIR) had an interest in ensuring ‘calm’ and productive activity in the Bolivian tin mines working for the Allies, whereas the POR called for a general strike.
They were joined in denunciation of the government by Víctor Paz Estenssoro, later four times president of the country. However, Estenssoro’s Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) party aimed much of its fire at the Jewish background of mine owner Mauricio Hochschild and his ownership of “Jewish daily” La Razón. The MNR, hostile to socialism as “an excuse for foreigners to meddle” in the nation’s affairs, would from 1943 serve in the military regime of Gualberto Villaroel. Roosevelt requested that Villaroel remove MNR ministers from his government in exchange for recognition, given their apparent pro-Nazi sympathies: indeed, the POR also labelled the régime as ‘fascist’.
The Pulacayo Thesis
In 1946-47 the gradual development of the POR allowed it to shift its focus from the university town of Cochabamba to more industrial areas, including activism at a bottling plant and textiles factories in La Paz as well as the Oruro mines, close to the home of Lora’s father. Despite its small size the party began to exert influence in the FSTMB miners’ federation, via its contacts with union leader Juan Lechín – a member of the MNR.
At the FSTMB’s Third Congress in 1946 Lechín read out a speech written by the POR, and a number of demands from Trotsky’s Transitional Programme (such as a sliding scale to keep wages above inflation) were incorporated into the union’s statutes. A further advance came with a congress at Pulacayo, where a set of theses were passed which, as John comments, may well have been presented by Llallagua miners, but were in fact drafted by Guillermo Lora with input from other POR leaders.
This document, the Pulacayo Thesis, is still an important point of reference for Bolivian trade unionism, systematising a basic Trotskyist understanding of the need for working-class political independence and the combination of democratic demands with the struggle for socialist transformation. For example, it comments:
“The bourgeoisie invents “worker” ministers the better to deceive the workers… the FSTMB will never join bourgeois governments, because that would mean the most open betrayal of the exploited masses”.
However, the document also states that there will be a bourgeois-democratic revolution under proletarian leadership, implying that this is a separate stage from socialist revolution. Lechín could therefore combine a rhetorical anti-capitalism with his support for the bourgeois MNR party – and the Trotskyists’ tie to the masses was via Lechín, not based on any mass organisation of their own, given that the organisation had barely a hundred members.
Fulfilling the Pulacayo Thesis’s call for a political instrument of the union, the FSTMB stood 17 candidates in the 1947 election, two of whom were elected to the Senate and eight to the Chamber of Deputies. There was little truth in the POR claim to the Fourth International that eight of the candidates were POR and the other nine pro-POR miners; but as well as Lechín a small clutch of Trotskyists were elected to parliament. Lora was keen to insist that the miners’ bloc in parliament was not an appendage of the MNR, and yet consistently defended Lechín.
The Trotskyists owed much of their power in the FSTMB, and the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) union federation thanks to their willingness to take the initiative: Lora boasted that COB “did not take a single step without previously consulting [the Trotskyists] for their opinion”. However, the POR were not themselves truly politically independent of the trade unions, Lora admitting that most people would not have understood the difference between the POR and the trade union wing of the MNR.
‘Rosca’ repression and the 1952 Revolution
The ‘Rosca’ tin oligarchy was in power 1946-52, and they had Stalinists to do their bidding as coalition partners. In January 1947 miners in Potosí protested a Supreme Court ruling that a new retirement law could not be applied retroactively, and were attacked by the army. It was a PIR Minister of Labour who ordered troops into the mines; the Potosí mayor and police chief were also PIR members. PIR supporters claimed the miners had “attacked” the city “to the cry of “long live the POR, long live the MNR, glory to Villarroel”, demonstrating their disdain for the real workers’ movement.
Further such attacks on the working class included the mass firings at the Patiño mines in December 1947 and the 1949 massacre at the Catavi-Siglo XX mine. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the regime’s refusal to recognise the results of the 1951 election, in which the MNR had triumphed (despite property and literacy thresholds for voting). The ruling General Urriolagiotia insisted that Congress should choose the new president, but then instead handed power to a military junta.
Parts of the army and police grew restless, and in April 1952 staged a coup d’état to establish the MNR in power. Lechín played a strong leadership role, with workers’ militias joining the struggle against the pro-junta army forces, winning the low-paid rank-and-file soldiers to the side of the uprising. Lechín could have himself taken control, but instead invited Estenssoro to return from his exile in Argentina to assume the presidency.
The mass character of the military struggle and the better organisation of the trade union movement under the 1946-52 regime meant that the MNR had to advance significant reforms. Estenssoro allowed universal suffrage as well as the nationalisation of the mines and some of the large landed estates. The COB was a significant buttress for the MNR in a supposed ‘co-government’.
POR’s attitude to the new government reflected its own past attitude to Lechín – now Minister of Mining – as well as the advice of the Fourth International’s leadership. Before the 1952 Revolution, the FI’s Third World Congress had recommended:
“In the event of a mass mobilization promoted or mainly fomented by the MNR, our Bolivian section will support it with all its forces and intervene energetically to advance it as much as possible, even carrying through to the seizure of power by the MNR, on the basis of the progressive programme of the anti-imperialist united front.
“If, on the contrary, it becomes evident in the course of these mobilizations that our Bolivian section has as much influence as the MNR over the revolutionary masses, it will launch the slogan of forming a Workers’ and Peasants’ Government constituted by both organizations, with the above-mentioned program and supported by committees of workers, peasants and revolutionary elements of the petty-bourgeoisie.”
Although the POR did not in fact participate in the MNR government, it worked closely with trade unionists who did, and that in turn affected the POR’s own perspectives. The POR advocated a “Workers’ majority” in the government and “Complete control of the state by the MNR left wing”: it criticised the MNR left such as Lechín for ‘not going far enough’ rather than for their basically top-down and reformist politics, running the capitalist state and nationalising industry on behalf of the population.
Indeed, the movement from below had to suffer in the interests of the POR’s alliance with the MNR left. Peasant members of the POR in Cochabamba, unhappy at the pace of land reform, had begun occupations of their own initiative, drawing attacks from the right-wing leadership of the MNR. The MNR wanted industrial peace and the smooth functioning of capitalism; the POR wanted to draw closer to the left wing of the MNR; so the POR had to oppose the movement:
“It is urgently necessary to explain these dangers to the peasant masses and make them understand that the slogan ‘Occupy the land’, while still correct, cannot be carried out under present conditions, and at the moment of its application must be determined by the Party’s CC when conditions have matured sufficiently on a nation-wide scale.
The Trotskyists split
The 1952 Revolution had seen mass mobilisation and ‘land to the Indian, mines to the state’ partially implemented, but the Trotskyists’ hopes of socialist transformation had not come to fruition. Much as in Sri Lanka – one of only two other countries where Trotskyism had mass influence – the Fourth International had in fact advocated a stageist strategy of supporting the left wing of the bourgeoisie. This disappointment and soul-searching soon led to a split.
The two main factions both supported a united front with the MNR. Some of the leaders of POR-Masas, led by Lora, joined the MNR itself in 1954. Lora himself did not join, but rather paced round the presidential palace as his comrades made “the sign of the cross before a crucifix, in the presence of Paz Estenssoro” at a special membership ceremony. The Fracción Proletaria Internationalista, led by Húgo Gonzalez, accused Lora of capitulation to Estenssoro, but as distinct from ‘entryism’, preferred that the POR should become an independent force in a coalition government with the MNR. This division was therefore not identical to the split between entryists and anti-entryists in the Fourth International leadership in Europe.
John refers to a little-known separate group in in Cochabamba, led by POR peasant activists, Modesto Sejas and the Swiss exile ‘López’, who opposed entryism as such and accused the leadership of capitulating to bourgeoisie. This Fracción Leninista (which the author amusingly refers to as the “Quechua/Swiss Leninist faction”) recalled Trotsky’s analysis of 1920s China, where the Communists had accepted the leadership of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang nationalist party, and thus lost any independent role, leading to their suppression. The Fracción Leninista characterised the MNR as the “party of the national bourgeoisie” and “Kuomintang of Bolivia”, and its government as the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.
The Cochabamba group’s critique ties into a major theme of the book, which is to differentiate the stageist strategy of the POR from Trotsky’s conception of ‘permanent revolution’ and thus to defend the latter.
For example, where the Pulacayo Thesis argues that the proletariat should carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution, John argues that this “differed significantly from Trotsky’s theory that the “tasks” historically associated with bourgeois revolutions would be carried out by the working class in a proletarian socialist revolution, supported by the poor peasants”. These tasks include not only the extension of democratic rights but also reforms associated with popular sovereignty such as land nationalisation.
The original use of the term ‘permanent revolution’ is in the 1850 Address of the central committee to the Communist League, which comments that “At the beginning, of course, the workers cannot propose any directly communist measures”. The idea is that workers should force bourgeois democrats to take more and more bold reforms, and that communists should highlight the need for workers’ independent organisation.
Leon Trotsky developed this idea with the claim that in a backward or colonised country, the bourgeoisie is too politically weak to carry out a bourgeois-democratic revolution: but there is no need to wait for a stage between feudalism and socialism, since the working class can carry out all the ‘historic tasks’ of the bourgeois-democratic revolution itself during an ongoing process of socialist transformation.
In the Bolivian example of 1952, the bourgeois MNR party really did, in a vacillating and anti-socialist manner, carry out some among the classical measures of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, for instance universal suffrage and a measure of agrarian reform. None of these were early steps in an eventual socialist revolution: rather, MNR fulfilment of bourgeois-democratic tasks sought to contain class struggle and canalise the revolutionary movement into support for the capitalist state.
Discussion of the POR’s ‘independence’ as a party from the MNR can only go so far. A POR ‘workers’ government’ pursuing bourgeois-democratic tasks would equally have displaced power from the mass movement by prioritising state-driven reforms. State ownership of the mines was not just non-socialist because it was pursued by the MNR: but rather, because the state apparatus in itself represents a division of labour between the decision-making political elite and the mass of the population.
Ultimately the POR pursued a course resembling Marx’s advice to the German workers in 1850, maintaining an independent organisation while trying to push the bourgeoisie to the left. The POR did this because they believed Bolivia was not yet a fully-fledged bourgeois democracy, but needed to continue a struggle against feudalism and imperialism first. This was a fatal misunderstanding of the tasks of communists: for in 1952 the real question posed was not capitalism versus feudalism but whether the size, organisation and consciousness of the working class was such that it could overthrow the bourgeois state.
John’s book criticises the idea that the democratic and proletarian revolutions are separate stages, and thus condemns alliance with bourgeois parties. But he does not develop any discussion of what socialism is, or what the Trotskyists imagined socialism to be, other than nationalisations and POR rule. For this reason he does not at all question the idea that the workers’ party running the capitalist state would represent socialism.
In addition to the general tendency to ignore the Bolivian working class entirely, many on the left paradoxically strongly associate the country with Che Guevara: for it was in Bolivia that he was captured and killed in his last guerrilla mission.
However, Guevara had essentially no organisation in Bolivia and ignored its particular conditions and really existing labour movement. The peasantry in the Ñancahuazú valley where he established his training camp were particularly conservative. For any of the combative miners to support his revolution they would have had to ditch their home and job, and head for the forests to join his – 50-member – foco guerrilla group.
He was naive indeed to expect much help from the staunchly pro-Moscow (and therefore non-revolutionary) local Communist Party – and even more fatal, he was unaware of the direct US involvement in the Bolivian Army, which soon crushed his forces.
Guevara’s supporter Régis Debray reproached the workers for not coming to Guevara’s aid, characterising them as “a class deluded as to its own political importance and with an over-weening self-confidence” – but as John argues, “In practice, Che’s strategy relegated tens of thousands of militant miners to the role of sideline supporters”.
Guillermo Lora did have illusions in another advocate of socialism-from-above, however, the left-wing general Juan José Torres. There was an extremely high incidence of military coups in Bolivia (and elsewhere on the continent) in the 1960s and 1970s, but Torres was the only military ruler of the left. He fulfilled the long-standing Trotskyist demand for a Constituent Assembly.
Chairing the Asamblea Popular (People’s Assembly) was Juan Lechín, restored to the COB leadership, and the assembly had a 60% working-class composition, 30% peasants and the middle class and 10% for the established parties. POR-Masas hailed the “anti-imperialist front with soviet features” and “organ of power of the masses and the working-class”; POR-Combate were rather more circumspect, given that the working-class “representatives” had almost all been hand-picked from above or chosen by existing union leaders rather than actually elected by workers.
The Asamblea Popular had an essentially consultative role, but in any case was short-lived. Torres was overthrown in a fresh military coup in October 1971 led by the Junta of Commanders of the Armed Forces. He moved to Buenos Aires, where he was murdered by the military regime as it came to power in 1976.
1985 to today
As miners in Britain fought the dog end of their struggle against pit closures, so too in Bolivia did neo-liberalism wreak havoc on the mining sector. In government in 1985 was none other than Víctor Paz Estenssoro, the third of a series of four-year periods as President of Bolivia which spanned almost four decades. There was a large strike movement in the face of his attacks. Twelve thousand miners occupied La Paz in revolt against at austerity measures and a 40% wage drop since 1980. The miners held daily mass assemblies. But ultimately the sector was unprofitable, the struggle was defeated and the miners laid off en masse.
However, (as John omits to mention) the political consequences of the defeat of the FSTMB – by far the main bastion of labour militancy in Bolivia, to an even greater extent than the NUM ever was in Britain – were not the same as Thatcher achieved. The effect of the mass displacement of miners was to force them to the countryside, where they played a significant role in the radicalisation of the peasantry and of the indigenous movement. The class struggle never went away, it was merely forced onto a different terrain.
The Bolivian working class and the indigenous population are not identical, but the large majority of the working class, even the industrial working class, is indigenous. The successful 2000 struggle against water privatisation in Cochabamba, and the ‘Gas War’ general strikes of 2003 and 2005, involved diverse strata of the working class, peasantry and the dispossessed, but they were still informed and energised by the tradition and politics of past movements. The demands for expropriation of multinational hydrocarbon companies and for a Constituent Assembly were redolent of the struggles of 1952; in 2005 the popular assembly FEJUVE was strongly resemblent of a classical workers’ council, establishing effective control of the city of El Alto and giving an important leadership role to women and the unemployed.
John’s book is a history of Trotskyism, not of the class struggle in general, and given the decline of the Trotskyist organisations, he telescopes all discussion of the last three decades into just a few pages. The author refers to the continued combativity of the FSTMB and condemns Evo Morales’ centre-left MAS government, but he does not explain the changes in class composition of recent decades and the continuing strength of revolutionary ideas among wider layers of the population. This is a pity, because one of the Morales’ government’s favourite myths (as repeated by its vicarious supporters internationally) is that the miners are ‘sectional’ and anti-peasant, and that only the government really represents the whole country.
But the industrial working class was always a small minority of the population: the point is that it represented the most powerful force in a movement involving diverse strata of the working class and subaltern classes, as was expressed in 2000-2005. That the miners are strong because they have a developed class consciousness and can fight the army with dynamite does not mean either (i) only they can be defined as working class or (ii) they have interests opposed to the mass of the population.
It is not the miners but the MAS government which has betrayed demands raised by the 2000-2005 movements. As John puts it, Evo Morales is seen by the class-conscious “not as an engineer on the locomotive of revolution, but a fireman trying to put out the flames of revolt”.
Bolivia’s Radical Tradition will not be widely read, even on the left. At $55 it is very expensive – no fault of the author – and as such not really accessible to anyone without access to a university library. But it is an impressively thorough and well-researched study of an oft-ignored country and its specific political culture.
The author is right to make clear his own political views: there is not much value in a disinterested, ‘objective’ history of a movement which was meant to change the world. More important is to treat the events and the intentions of those involved loyally and honestly. That said, the Trotskyist viewpoint of the author does lead him to focus exclusively on the Trotskyists as the representatives of ‘Bolivia’s radical tradition’, with the consequence that he does not sufficiently stress the importance of struggles in recent years where Trotskyist organisations had less influence.
However, ultimately the book’s attempt to crowbar a defence of Trotsky into a history of his Bolivian disciples is unconvincing. John’s criticisms of the POR tailing MNR are correct insofar as they go, but to understand why it did so we need to critique the idea of managing the bourgeois-democratic state itself, not just Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.