Review: Social revolution in Bolivia?
Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson
Review by Sarah Hines
(This article first appeared in International Socialist Rreview Issue 60, July–August 2008)
IN THE wave of popular rebellion and concurrent leftward electoral shift that has swept Latin America in the last decade or more, nowhere has popular mobilization from below been as powerful as in Bolivia. As historians Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson write in Revolutionary Horizons, “In no other Latin American country have popular forces achieved so much through their own initiative.”
Hylton and Thomson argue that the recent period of upheaval in Bolivia constitutes a revolution whose defining moment was the October 2003 insurrection that ousted Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada from the presidency.
The struggle arose in response to the disastrous impacts of neoliberal economic policies. Discontent was particularly focused by the threatened sale of hydrocarbons, one of Bolivia’s most valuable remaining natural resources, at rock-bottom prices. The movements made it clear that they would continue to depose successive governments until the October Agenda—demanding nationalization of the country’s natural gas reserves, punishment of politicians responsible for sixty-seven deaths in the rebellion, and a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution—was fulfilled.
In what they call an “excavation of the
Andean revolution,” Hylton and Thomson paint a dynamic picture of more
than two hundred years of struggle that they see as intricately bound up
with the revolutionary struggles of today, whose character and trajectory
they also assess.
Central to the authors’ perspective is the idea that popular memory of past struggles, particularly Bolivia’s two previous revolutions, and radical traditions of collective organization, serve as “reserves of strength” that popular movements have drawn on in the current revolutionary cycle.
Bolivia’s revolutionary past
In their view, the first and most important of these previous revolutions was the indigenous anti-colonial revolution of 1780–81, led by Tupaj Amaru, Tapaj Katari, and Tomás Katari, which threatened Spanish colonial rule in the southern Andes. The second, Bolivia’s 1952 national revolution, resulted in agrarian reform, the nationalization of the country’s mines, and the implementation of universal suffrage and education.
The authors frame their discussion of divisions and convergences among popular forces by differentiating between Indian and national-popular struggles that have “followed separate historical paths” and whose relations have often been plagued with “misapprehension, suspicion, and manipulation.” While there have been elements of each in the other, they find that Indian elements have generally been subordinated within national-popular blocs, as have Indian conceptions of nationality.
In tracing the trajectory of popular rebellion and revolution, they hold that the strengths and limitations of alliances between the two traditions have consistently born a direct relationship to the movements’ impact.
The indigenous insurgents briefly found allies among La Paz’s creole population during the 1780–81 insurrection, but it was not until the twentieth century that Indians successfully forged alliances with national-popular forces.
The first major instance of such an alliance
occurred with the 1927 Indian community rebellion. Radical urban allies,
including lawyers, educators, artisans, and intellectuals in the new Socialist
Party, supported indigenous demands for self-government and collective
Although indigenous peasants, proletarians, and progressive middle-class elements combined forces in the 1952 revolution, Hylton and Thomson point to tensions that emerged in the alliance in the revolution’s wake. “Despite the rural origins of much of the mining labor force,” they write, “relations between workers and peasants were marked by a sense of cultural and class distance.” Peasant leaders experienced condescending treatment from proletarian leaders, and the imbalance was reinforced by the government’s preference for dropping “ethnic distinctions for class identification—the country’s rural denizens would be celebrated as industrious ‘peasant’ laborers rather than stigmatized with the colonial label of ‘Indians.’”
Counterrevolutionary forces exploited peasant-proletarian divisions in order to consolidate a peasant-military alliance that formed the basis for the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s. Because the peasantry made up the vast majority of the country’s population, the military-peasant pact left Bolivian workers isolated in the face of repressive state violence, particularly in the mining centers. It was only after indigenous peasant communities broke from their pact with the state following a horrific massacre of peasants in the Cochabamba valley in January 1974, that popular forces were “finally able to beat back reactionary military forces and usher in a return to democracy.”
The revival of Indian peasant traditions of struggle renewed the possibility for peasant-proletarian solidarity—and led to the development of contending political currents within indigenous peasant communities. Increasingly, a split developed between the kataristas and indianistas. Kataristas had a significant base in the peasant trade union movement and sought out potential class allies, while indianistas had less of a base in the peasant trade union movement, emphasized racial rather than class oppression, and “spurned alliances with what they branded the ‘mestizo-creole’ left.”
In the face of the dismantling of the social welfare state in the mid-1980s by the same party that had led its construction thirty years earlier, the peasant-proletarian alliance soon confronted old tensions. Although its own ranks suffered from the impact of the introduction of neoliberal economic policies, the leadership of the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB) failed to respond to demands of the CSUTCM (Trade Union Confederation of Bolivian Peasant Workers) to incorporate greater peasant leadership and representation. Indianista rather than katarista tendencies thus began to find greater resonance in the CSUTCM while the COB became increasingly impotent in the face of neoliberal economic restructuring. The result, the authors argue, was that “peasant political organization was thus forced in new more autonomous directions in the late 1980s and 1990s, and class struggle was increasingly recast as, or supplanted by, ethnic struggle.”
Neoliberalism and new revolt
The late 1980s and 1990s saw further decimation of the organized working class and the liquidation of public assets—the national oil and gas, telecommunications, airline, electricity, and railroad companies were all sold off by the government during Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada’s first presidency in the mid-1990s.
Yet the period also saw the rebirth of popular struggle in the coca-growing region of the Chapare, where many miners migrated after the state mines were closed. Coca eradication efforts targeted poor growers (cocaleros) rather than the wealthy and politically-connected Bolivians and foreigners who control and reap the lion’s share of the profits from narco-trafficking. In their struggles of resistance, the cocaleros drew from the miners’ syndical tradition.
The 2000 Water War in Cochabamba struck the first decisive blow against neoliberalism in Bolivia. It was successful because it again brought together a multitude of popular forces, including coca growers, peasants, urban workers, and the urban poor. Although the Water War was successful in its immediate goal, the authors argue that the movements failed to oust President Hugo Banzer (the former dictator who was elected president in 1997) due to the failure of an alliance between Felipe Quispe, head of the CSUTCM; Evo Morales, cocalero union leader and founder of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) party; and the coalition led by Oscar Olivera that coordinated the Water War. So while MAS’s strong showing in the 2002 elections confirmed that the social movements had effected a decisive shift in the balance of forces, the rivalry between Quispe and Morales, as well as their efforts to curb the radicalism of the movements thereafter, “would plague the social movements until October 2003.”
In the October 2003 ouster of Sánchez de Lozada and again in June 2005, when the social movements forced Sánchez de Lozada’s successor from office for failing to fulfill the October Agenda, the uprisings drew their strength from the coalescence of the popular classes.
In December 2005, six months after the movements deposed President Carlos Mesa, Morales was elected the first indigenous president in the country’s history. Morales came to power promising to nationalize natural gas, implement agrarian reform, and call a constituent assembly that would “re-found” the nation. While the MAS government has followed through on some of these promises, its efforts in each of these areas, as the authors explain, have had serious limits. The gas nationalization raised royalties on foreign corporations but did not go so far as to expropriate gas fields, and agrarian reform has benefited many but does not challenge private property.
The most important betrayal from the authors’ perspective has been the party’s approach to the constituent assembly. MAS’s failure to follow through on its promise to allow collective representation according to ethnic criteria, trade union or neighborhood affiliation, or other social association, Hylton and Thomson write, “began the effective closure of the revolutionary process.”
In their view, “the election of Evo Morales did not bring about a revolution. It was a revolution that brought about the government of Evo Morales.” They argue that Morales’s government has brought the current revolutionary cycle to a close. While MAS is concerned with responding to the popular mandate, it is also making “a bid for state hegemony, intended to consolidate [their] medium-term governing plans,”—that is consolidate a “‘social pact’ to resurrect a national capitalist model of development, decolonize the state, and redistribute wealth and resources.” For MAS, “decolonization” would involve greater incorporation of indigenous people in state institutions, which have historically been run almost exclusively by descendents of the Spanish colonizers.
For the authors, however, true decolonization
would go much further. The failure of the MAS government to allow for collective
representation evinces its problematic view that “indigenous groups no
longer need ‘special representation’ since they have already achieved representation—through
MAS.” So while, in the authors’ view, the revolution resulted in the “collapse
of the once triumphant neoliberal model instituted in the 1980s and mounted
the greatest challenge yet seen to the historical structures of internal
colonialism,” they also see both internal colonialism and the need for
revolutionary change to overcome it as continuing to define the Bolivian
Unlike many left academics, Hylton and Thomson unapologetically connect their academic work and historical scholarship to struggles unfolding today. They themselves witnessed and participated in the October uprising and have been actively engaged in building relationships among scholars, activists, and communities in Bolivia and the United States.
This book is unique among recent books that describe the processes at work in Bolivia because it contextualizes the current revolutionary cycle in past revolutionary and radical movements and because it tries to theorize the process of change that will no doubt continue to unfold.
Yet the book raises many questions that I believe cannot be fully answered within the authors’ Indian/national-popular framework—questions that call for greater incorporation of a class analysis.
First, they rightly criticize the historic chauvinism of proletarian organizations toward peasant and indigenous demands, but mistakenly, I would argue, attribute this blunder to trade union leaders’ adherence to a classic Marxist or Leninist conception of workers’ vanguard role in the socialist revolution. The failure to take racism and peasant concerns seriously was not the inevitable result of adherence to a Marxist revolutionary vision, but rather can be attributed to the failure of Bolivian left parties and workers’ unions to reject the distorted vulgar Marxism of international Stalinism, which infected not only the Bolivian Communist Party (CPB) but also the Bolivian Trotskyist movement.
Both the CPB and the right wing of the Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR) shared the assumption that revolution in backward countries like Bolivia would necessarily occur in two stages, the first a bourgeois revolution that would lead to a period of capitalist development to prepare the ground for the second, socialist, revolution. This stagist conception led the CPB to liquidate itself into the national popular bloc that ran the state after the revolution and the POR to put its faith in working-class government ministers. The effect of both strategies was to reinforce a subordination of the working class to the national bloc. In collapsing the working class into the national-popular bloc, the authors do not differentiate its interests from the bloc’s middle-class leadership, which acted quickly to check the working class’s power in the revolution’s wake.
Furthermore, while they document the complicity
of peasant leadership in the military governments of the 1960s and 1970s,
they seem reluctant to blame peasant leaders as much as they fault proletarian
chauvinism for tensions in later alliances.
The nascent national-popular bloc no longer revolved around proletarian trade unionism, as it did in earlier twentieth-century movements, but rather acquired an indigenous centrality with a strong rural peasant thrust. The effects of neoliberalism, particularly accelerated urban migration, might have been expected to break down long-standing ethnic solidarities by reinforcing the divide between town and country. Yet instead solidarities were reconstituted, as urban and peri-urban territory was occupied by settlers from the countryside, many of whom retained dual residence in city and country.While the strengthening of rural-urban solidarities is no doubt a positive development, the massive migration that serves as the basis for this solidarity is a product of the severe crisis in the Bolivian countryside, where poverty rates were 79 percent (as opposed to 29 percent in urban areas) in the 1990s. The crisis of proletarian trade unionism, for all its historic weaknesses, was an enormous setback for Bolivian workers and peasants alike, and continues to undermine the strength of the popular movements. The 2003 insurrection would have been vastly strengthened, for example, had other sectors of the movement accepted a proposal put forward by the mineworkers’ union for gas workers to take control of gas distribution.
As the authors would likely agree, class and ethnic struggles need not be counterposed. Until the class struggle is a partnership of peasants and workers that makes anti-racism central to its program, the forces of reaction will continue to exploit divisions, and the possibility for liberation from all the oppressions facing ordinary people in Bolivia will be indefinitely postponed.
Third, it is unclear from their discussion to what degree the movements themselves identify with the “ancestral language of pachakuti,” “an overturning of time and space out of which a new phase in history may issue” where “the past can be seen as a future.” This discussion, I feel, risks assuming that an eternal tradition can be found among indigenous people and envisioning past societies as models for the future. It should be noted as well that the attempt to develop a pan-Aymara identity is a recent phenomenon that originated among urban indigenous intellectuals and students. The authors criticize non-governmental organizations and Morales’s MAS party for promoting multiculturalism to “defuse social conflict,” but do not account for the way Aymara nationalism too is used to undermine class unity.
Fourth, the authors’ critique of the MAS government is apt, but incomplete. They rightly criticize the MAS party’s foremost concern with establishing its own hegemony and bringing the revolutionary cycle to a close, but it is unclear on what basis MAS’s vision differs from that of the indigenous forces whose “political vision, initiative, and leadership” has driven forward the movements that brought Morales to power. How is it that Morales, once a leader of the most combative sector of Bolivian society, the cocaleros, is now at the helm of the forces bringing the revolutionary process to a close? Why didn’t the Morales government go further in its efforts to fulfill the October Agenda? To answer these questions we must go further than pointing to the stated limits of the MAS program.
Finally, we must call into question the authors’ contention that the recent upheaval in Bolivia constitutes a “social revolution.” Hylton and Thomson cite Lenin and Trotsky to justify this view, pointing to the “direct interference of the masses in history” that occurred in Bolivia between 2000 and 2006, and reject the idea that the outcome is relevant. But as Lenin wrote in the passage they cite, more than just the entry of the masses onto the stage of history, a social revolution occurs when the masses erect a new society and destroy the old.
A social revolution entails the transformation of social relations of production and the transfer of state power from one class to another. The limits of the MAS government can only be explained by understanding that no such transformation has occurred in Bolivia. The MAS government has no intention of challenging the social relations of production and has done its utmost to appease both the international and national bourgeoisies, despite claims by the international and Bolivian media and the Bolivian Right to the contrary.
International corporations continue to reap huge profits from Bolivia’s gas and mineral reserves, Brazil and Argentina still pay below-market rates for Bolivian gas, and coca eradication has actually increased during Morales’s tenure. One of the government’s first moves after taking office was to hose down striking state airline workers, and clashes between government forces and cocaleros left two coca farmers dead soon thereafter. In the face of threats from the eastern departments—the seat of natural gas deposits and agricultural interests—to secede from the country, Morales has consistently chosen to make concessions rather than put up a fight.
As the authors agree, Morales and his government are not interested in challenging capitalism, but in reintroducing a state-led model of capitalist development at the economic level and pluralizing government and civil society at the political level.
Morales and his party are committed to a vision of “Andean capitalism” that they say will have to last at least 100 years before Bolivia can move towards socialism. This is not because Morales is betraying his base—which he is—but because he and the rest of the MAS party leadership have a material interest in maintaining capitalism.
A class analysis of Bolivian society would recognize that the interests of trade union and political party leadership are not the same as those of the membership; that the rural indigenous peasantry cannot but look to allies in the mines and urban working class for in its struggle for liberation; that the working class must reorganize for the Bolivian workers, peasants, and the poor to have any hope of beating back the national and international forces of reaction and challenging middle class accommodationist leadership; and that the working class is the only force with the power to overthrow capitalism, Bolivian or otherwise.
Revolutionary Horizons nevertheless offers a valuable resource for understanding how rural-urban and ethnic-class divisions can be overcome in struggles to challenge oppression—and the absolute necessity of doing so in order for Bolivia’s workers, peasants, and poor to triumph.