Sinclair Thomson is a co-author of the book Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Paperback) See also Book review below
Book Review by Joseph Choonara, February 2008 (Published at The Socialist Review)
Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson
Some years before the French Revolution, Bolivia’s indigenous masses, the Aymara, the Quechua and others, rose up. The names of the heroes of the 1780-1 rebellion – Tomás Katari, Tupaj Amaro and Tupaj Katari – still echo through Bolivia, where two thirds of the population define themselves as indigenous.
The rebels would have won, had they succeeded in their efforts to forge an alliance against Spanish rule with creole (Latin American born) and mestizo (mixed race) forces in the cities. As it was, the rebellion was crushed. Tupaj Katari refused to surrender. As punishment his body was ripped apart by horses, and his severed limbs displayed across the country as a warning.
The Spanish colonists remained for four more decades, until the armies of Simón Bolívar drove them out. But Bolívar, a member of the creole elite, represented a less radical vision, declaring, “If the principles of liberty are too rapidly introduced, anarchy and the destruction of the white inhabitants will be the inevitable consequences.”
For Forrest Hylton and Sinclair Thomson, both left wing historians of Latin America, Bolivia’s struggles, past and present, have drawn strength from two parallel currents – indigenous and popular-nationalist – which have fleetingly come together to shape the country’s history, before flying apart again. The most recent convergence came during the cycle of struggle from 2000 to 2006, brought to a close by presidential elections won by Evo Morales.
While many on the left have been transfixed by events in Venezuela, for the authors of this book Bolivia’s struggles have gone far further: “In Venezuela, political transformation has occurred at the level of the state and then worked from the top down to channel the existing energies of grassroots organisations… In Bolivia, by contrast, impressive popular power has flowed from the bottom up… In no other Latin American country have popular forces achieved so much through their own initiative.”
Hylton and Thomson witnessed the explosions of October 2003 and May-June 2005, and their book would be worth reading for their accounts of these uprisings alone. But Revolutionary Horizons also contains a fascinating history of the two intertwined traditions of struggle.
If 1780-1 marked the high point for the indigenous tradition, the 1952-3 revolution marked the high point for popular nationalism. Tin miners, the core of the Bolivian trade union organisation (COB), spearheaded the revolution, many of them influenced by Trotskyism. For a short time the COB held power in the streets. But the revolutionaries relied on left-talking nationalists, who kept the revolution within a popular-nationalist framework.
Increasingly conservative governments that followed were eventually replaced by a dictatorship based on an alliance between the military and the peasantry. This pact began to break down in the 1970s, as new peasant unions aligned with the COB and new indigenous movements emerged.
These forces came together to overthrow military rule in the early 1980s. But again civilian governments proved a disappointment, and from 1985 onwards imposed the harsh neoliberal restructuring demanded by the IMF and the World Bank. “By 1991, at least 45,000 jobs had been lost in mining and state administration, and another 35,000 through factory shut-downs.” Impoverished miners and peasants drifted into the cities or turned to coca farming to seek an income, bringing with them their traditions of struggle.
From 2000 onwards the movement revived, and so too did old ideologies. “Even with the decline of the powerful COB… traditions of trade union politics engrained over the course of the 20th century have been transmitted to new popular organisations and younger generations.” But the movement also drew on the older indigenous tradition.
This blend of ideas helped drive the rebellion in Cochabamba in 2000, which fought off attempts to privatise water in the region. This was followed by the October 2003 revolt, triggered by demands for gas and oil nationalisation. Up to half a million protesters, in a country of just nine million, converged in the capital, La Paz, and the indigenous city of El Alto that sprawls across the plateau overlooking it. Alongside the urban poor-workers, small traders, the unemployed and partially employed, students and neighbourhood activists – came coca growers, mine workers and indigenous Aymara communities.
“Combining the Aymara community tactic of surrounding the city from the countryside with street fighting reminiscent of earlier national-popular mobilisations, barricades went up throughout El Alto on 10 October.” Seven days later the president fled to Miami leaving his vice-president, Carlos Mesa, in charge.
Forces from below had “brought about the collapse of the traditional parties”, but “they were unable to enforce fulfilment of the popular mandate when Mesa recoiled from his initial promises to meet their demands”. It was Evo Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) that began to fill the power vacuum. Mesa clung to power through a tacit alliance with MAS. It took a second wave of struggle, in May and June 2005, to drive him from the presidential palace, leading to early elections won by Morales.
Morales first came to prominence as a leader of the coca growers’ movement. He is a world apart from those who have previously misgoverned Bolivia. But, the authors argue, “the election of Evo Morales did not bring about a revolution. It was a revolution that brought about the government of Evo Morales”.
Today Morales seeks to negotiate between the social movements and global capitalism. The Bolivian right, especially forces centred on the gas-rich regions of the east, have sought to impose their own demands.
Despite these limitations, the authors call the latest cycle of struggle a “revolution”, seeing this as a “process” rather than simply a seizure of state power. They contrast what they call “Bolshevik” and “anarchist” positions – the first concerned with “vanguard political leaderships and the battle for state power”, the second “sceptical of concentrated political authority in the state and stressing the dynamism of communal democracy and local-regional collective action”. They qualify these labels, pointing out that the “Bolshevik” position is held by some indigenous militants as well as the traditional left. They show that events in Bolivia pose problems for both positions.
However, there is, in my view, an untested revolutionary strategy much closer to the original vision of Bolshevism. This sees revolution as the drawing together of democratic bodies from below into an alternative kind of state, rather than the takeover of the existing state machine by a “vanguard” party. Such a vision would necessarily be sensitive to indigenous demands, which express a desire for liberation in the here and now rather than nostalgia for a pre-capitalist “golden age”. This strategy would have as its goal a break with capitalism, going far beyond the “Andean capitalism” proclaimed by Morales’s vice-president, and could only be completed as part of an international process.
But for the moment the movement has reached an impasse. Curiously, the nature of this impasse is best captured by William Morris – a white, European Marxist of the 19th century – who the authors quote: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of defeat, and when it comes it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”