Pierre Broué

Bolivia, 9 April 1952:
A Forgotten ‘February Revolution’?

Written: 1992
Source: Revolutionary History magazine [London], Volume 4, No. 3, Summer 1992
Transcription: Martin Fahlgren
Markup: David Walters, 2009, for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line
Public Domain: This work is in the under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

This short introduction to the theoretical problems of the Bolivian Revolution was translated by John Archer from Tribune Internationale-La Verité, no 13, April 1983, and appears here by kind permission of both author and translator.

More general introductions to the history of Bolivia up to and including this time can be consulted with profit. An interesting snapshot of the country occurs in Peter Fryer’s Crocodiles in the Streets, London, 1987, pp42-51. James Malloy’s Bolivia: The Uncompleted Revolution, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, includes sections on Marof and Gainsborg and the origins of the POR (pp95-7), the POR in the Second World War (pp144-5), the Theses of Pulacayo (pp146-7), the influence of the POR amongst the peasantry of Cochabamba during the 1940s (pp200-1, 207) and the COB Manifesto (pp224-5).

A more detailed account, The Beginnings of Bolivian Trotskyism’ and Trotskyism and the Bolivian National Revolution’, occupies Chapters Six and Seven (pp111-56) of Robert J Alexander’s Trotskyism in Latin America, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, California, 1973. Alexander was at one point an advisor to President Kennedy (cf Joseph Hansen, Trotskyism in Latin America’, InterContinental Press, Volume 5, no 32, 5 September 1971), and has also written a book devoted to the Bolivian events, The Bolivian National Revolution, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1958.

Indispensable for the study of the whole topic is James Dunkerleys’s Rebellion in the Veins, London, 1984, the second chapter of which, The National Revolution’, should be subjected to close scrutiny, together with his ‘Notes on a Trip to Bolivia, July-October 1981’, which exists only in manuscript form donated to the Socialist Platform archives by Mike Jones, along with Dunkerley’s more detailed account, written jointly with Rolando Morales, ‘The Crisis in Bolivia’, New, Left Review, no 155, January-February 1986, pp86-106.

The main political problems receive particular attention in ‘The POR and the Bolivian Miners’, Trotskyist International, no 1, Summer 1988, pp32-43, which includes the Theses of Pulacayo, and ‘Bolivia 1952: Revolutionary Nationalism and Proletarian Revolution’, Permanent Revolution, no 2, Summer 1984, pp27-38, comprising Roberto Gramar’s ‘In Defence of the POR’ (translated by Mike Jones) and Stuart King’s ‘A Reply to Gramar’.

Mid-twentieth century Bolivia was an archaic country of appalling poverty, one of those countries where figures and percentages speak for themselves, and simply to list them is to compile a terrible indictment.

Four-fifths of the Indians spoke no other language than their vernacular, whilst 90 per cent of them were illiterate. Two hundred thousand miners worked in rags deep underground, at levels where the humidity was 95 per cent, producing 90 per cent of the national income. Half were infected with syphilis, and 60 per cent with tuberculosis. In 1950 the eight per cent of the landowners with estates of more than 500 hectares and often of thousands of hectares, possessed 95 per cent of the cultivable soil.[1]

The ‘gamonal’ , the great landowner, enjoyed the labour of the ‘colono’[2] for several days a week without pay, and also whenever he thought necessary for works which he regarded as being in the general interest. Two million Bolivian peasants lived ‘outside the money economy’ , to use a mild, value-free expression.

From first going underground, the miner could expect just 10 years of life in front of him. Not only did he earn barely enough to feed his family, but he also had to buy alcohol and the drug—coca—which enabled him to continue in these terrible conditions. These he bought in the company store, up on the plateau where he was going to die of tuberculosis, silicosis, or exhaustion—or of an overdose. So he paid with his blood and sweat the dividends of the shareholders in the firms of Hochschild, Aramayo or Patiño.[3]

Antenor Patiño, whose shares yielded 47 per cent of their face value, was the true ruler, both of Bolivia and, on behalf of imperialism, of tin. He was said to have offered Princess Margaret a fur coat worth $50 000. These men, capitalists and owners of great estates, enslavers of the Indians, were known as the Rosca, and they used the inexhaustible reservoir of labour formed by the masses of impoverished peasants on the margin of subsistence and society. For a long time they had controlled without difficulty a petit-bourgeoisie which they needed as much for its role in production as to maintain order. All in all about 150 000 people formed the body of electors, the ‘political class’ , to use this dubious term in a real sense.

The Revolution of 9 April

General Antonio Seleme, the chief of police, and General Humberto Torres Ortiz, the chief of staff of the army, decided to seize the capital on 8 April 1952. Their excuse was that an insurrection ‘from the left’ was being prepared. They believed that they were merely carrying out a police operation, which might indeed be necessary but would be a routine affair, a small ‘pronunciamento’ in the South American tradition. They were mistaken, for their initiative sparked off a revolution. The workers’ demonstrations on 8 April had an unexpected outcome. The hasty alliance between the rebels and the so-called ‘loyal’ military units was too late. The workers obtained arms, and on 9 April they launched attacks on the police and army posts. The army units collapsed in the face of the tide of humanity which took over the streets. Workers’ barricades were erected all across La Paz.

On 9 April the leaders of the MNR were quick to announce that a new government was being formed under the leadership of the exiled Paz Estenssoro.[4] The armed workers came to demand that the new ministers make room for three representatives whom the workers had already chosen. Very clearly something had changed in the tin kingdom. What had happened was a revolution, that was from then on known as the Revolution of 9 April.

In his analysis of the revolution which he made in 1963, Guillermo Lora, a leader of the POR at the time, said:

9 April can be regarded as the Bolivian “February Revolution”, if we take into account the differences due to the circumstances. The most remarkable similarity lies in that the workers made the revolution and that it was the political party of another class which took power. To a certain extent the Bolivian petit-bourgeoisie played the role of the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia. Our “October Revolution” has been too slow in arriving. That is the difference which strikes the eye. The ebb of the revolutionary movement, which we said was only temporary, has lasted too long.’

Catherine and Francois Chesnais write in their introduction to the French translation of Lora’ s book:

`The April revolution was a genuine revolution. The masses surged forward to the front of the stage with extraordinary determination and the desire to bring down for good the rule of the Rosca. It carried on the activity appropriate to the masses. Through the destruction of “gamonalism” in the countryside, as well as the new political experience which it meant for the proletariat and its vanguard, the revolution represented a profound break from the palt. A new stage in the history of the class struggle in Bolivia opened in April 1952. In this respect April 1952 really was like February 1917, including the delay until October in the evolution of the situation.’

On the thirty-first anniversary of the revolution of April 1952, and just after the publication of an article in Informations Ouvrières entitled ‘The Paradox of February [19171’ , it is interesting to attempt to explain why this ‘February Revolution’ surged up, and why the ‘OctoberRevolution’ , which it foreshadowed, has been so long delayed.

The economic, social and political situation described above had deteriorated continuously since the 1920s. The price of tin fell, agriculture stagnated, and the petit-bourgeoisie saw the possibilities of upward social movement closed off. One part of the petit-bourgeoisie was to serve the Rosca to the end, but the youth, and especially the students, looked for a solution through nationalism, or even Marxism, and a workers’ movement that was taking its first steps.

The Second World War and the political developments which accompanied it were to speed up a political differentiation, which led ultimately to an explosion and the eruption of the masses onto the scene.

The Forces Which Confronted Each Other

The Stalinists appeared openly in 1926 with a trade union federation, the CSTB, which was linked with the confederation led by the Mexican agent of Stalin, Lombardo Toledano,[5] and then, in 1940, with a party, the Partido de la Izquierda Revolucionario (PIR). From 1941 onwards the PIR supported the concept of ‘patriotic unity’ , that is it defended the interests of the ‘allies’ of the Soviet bureaucracy. It sent its representatives into reactionary governments, just as its brother party in Cuba did for the government of Batista. This collaboration with what appeared to be the main enemy alienated the PIR from many of its supporters, to the benefit of the nationalist movement.

The MNR was founded in 1941. It proclaimed itself to be an patriotic, Socialist-inclined movement for the independence of Bolivia. The MNR entered the government for the first time after the military coup d’ état which brought Colonel Villarroel to power, with the aim of winning a programme of limited reforms, and particularly of using the state to create peasant unions and the new trade union organisation of the FSTMB, which was to have considerable resources with which to organise the workers.

The MNR benefitted on this level from the response of the masses which turned towards it in disgust at the classic Stalinist policy of the PIR, which supported the Rosca against the nationalists, whom it treated as ‘pro-Nazis’ .

However, one sector escaped from the control of the MNR unions, and this was the tin miners. During the 1940s a workers’ group formed by militants of the POR, which had been founded in exile under the influence of the Trotskyists in Chile and Argentina in order to build the Fourth International in Bolivia, had, little by little, built a base amongst the miners.

It was they who in November 1946 won over the Miners’ Federation to adopt the well-known Theses of Pulacayo with a programme for the nationalisation of the mines, agrarian reform and universal suffrage, which the MNR found itself obliged to support.

Already in 1947 the Miners’ Parliamentary Bloc was strong enough to get four deputies elected,6 one of whom was Lora, and two senators, one of whom was Lechin, who over a period used the political authority of the POR to become the leading trade union leader and the indispensable agent of the MNR at the head of the Bolivian Workers Central Organisation (COB).

The Bolivian trade union centre, the COB, was founded just 11 days after the victory in the streets of the Revolution of 9 April. It was founded through the initiative of a POR militant, Miguel Alandia Pantoja. At that time it was not only the largest mass organisation in the country, but was a genuine constituent of dual power, with strongly marked characteristics of Soviet-type power.

The PIR was discredited, the MNR was overtaken and forced to adopt the slogans of the POR in order to control the movement, and the influence of the POR was growing. These were the political elements which explain why the generals’ actions on 8 April produced the breach through which poured the tidal wave of the masses, and which resulted in the outbreak of the revolution. In such conditions, at the point when the POR’ s programme opened a perspective for struggle, there was no counter-revolutionary apparatus able to act decisively as a brake.

Paz Estenssoro received a rapturous welcome from the crowds when he returned from exile. They demanded the nationalisation of the mines and the expropriation of the landlords. He gave way—and prepared to counter-attack.

The MNR’ s Counter-Attack

There is a law of revolutions which applies generally, and especially in revolutions like that of February 1917. In their first phase, the masses tum towards the organisations which they have raised to power, which seem to them to be the party of the victorious revolution, which are in government, and which have the greatest mass influence.

Despite the tremendous qualities of the POR, and despite its influence in the mining regions, the fact is that at the beginning of April 1952 it was only a very small party, and above all it lacked material resources. The MNR, on the other hand, was a genuine mass party. It enjoyed the support of all the leading layers of society, who saw it as their ultimate defender, and had everything it needed to enjoy a favourable image and to give the masses the illusion of being their party—apart from a real implantation in the working class.

As for the POR, it did not clearly understood the situation. Even in its leadership, there were some who had illusions in the left wing’ of the MNR, such as Lechin, whom the bourgeoisie had placed there for that very purpose. The POR did not propose the slogan ‘All Power to the COB’ . It limped behind Lechín, who talked about ‘controlling’ the government, at the moment when the government was systematically excluding the COB from positions of power, and encouraging the dual process of both integrating it into the governmental apparatus and bureaucratising it.

Soon a revisionist wing in the leadership of the POR was supporting the idea that the Bolivian masses would take power within the frame-work of their existing organisations—which, in real terms, meant under the leadership of the left wing’ of the MNR.

This crisis in the POR opened the door to the politics of stabilisation and the MNR’ s counter-attack. In October the nationalisation of the tin mines, at the moment when the rural masses were starting to move, served as a sharp check. This was nationalisation with compensation, which left open the possibility of a return to private ownership, while the creation of the mixed managing concern for the mines, the Comibol, laid the material basis for the large-scale corruption of the trade union leaderships, which were being integrated into the state on the pretext of sharing control.

The ebb of the revolution, which was in general inevitable, could only be accelerated in the course of the following years, after the proletariat had been disoriented by the consequences of its victory. The peasant movement in turn moved towards the bourgeois form of agricultural smallholdings.

Thirty-one years after the Revolution of 9 April there has been no ‘Bolivian October’ . That cannot be disputed. Nonetheless, the revolution of 9 April has lived on within the consciousness of the masses in Bolivia and in South America. We can be convinced of this by the international campaign against the ‘Trotskyists’ in Bolivia in the 1960s—read the book by Regis Debray[7]—by the continuation of attempts to destroy the POR and the struggles of the workers and peasants, and by the struggle for the Constituent Assembly in 1971—a struggle which has not yet ended, as has been shown recently by the ignominious collapse of the government of the drug trafficking generals, and by the coming to power of Siles Zuazo, the left arm of Paz Estenssoro.

Let us state clearly: behind the defeats which have followed the Bolivian ‘February’ , in 1971 as in 1952, can be traced the crisis of the Fourth International.[8] To be sure, it is not only in Bolivia that the revolutionary International is necessary for the victorious transition from February to October. But it is because Bolivia reached its ‘February’ in 1952 that the question of the International appeared there in such a striking way.


1. The distribution of land in Bolivia was very unequal. In 1950 615 landowners with holdings of 10 000 or more hectares held 49.6 per cent of the cultivatable land in Bolivia, whilst a total of 51 198 landowners with holdings of less than 0.5 hectares held 0.23 per cent of the cultivatable land. The land was underexploited, with an overall average of 1.9 per cent of cultivatable land being used. Those owning over 10 000 hectares used a mere 0.5 per cent of their holdings, the figure for those owning under 0.5 hectares was 54.2 per cent (HS Klein, Prelude to the Revolution’ , in JM Malloy and RS Thorn (eds), Beyond the Revolution: Bolivia Since 1952, Pittsburgh, 1971, p42).

2. Gamonal: from gamonito, a parasitic plant which digs into roots of trees and lives off their sap. In Bolivia it refers to those who live off the unpaid labour of peasants, in other words wealthy parasites, idlers. Colono: a landless peasant who provides free agricultural labour on big estates in exchange for the right to grow crops on some of the land.

3. The tin content of the ore extracted in the Catavi mine declined steadily from 6.65 per cent in 1925 to 1.28 per cent in 1950, and continued to decline thereafter. Despite the increasing work necessary to extract the same amount of tin, in the period 1950-52 the amount spent per annum on importing mining machinery into Bolivia was in real terms a mere 3.3 per cent higher than in 1925-29 (RS Thorn, ‘The Economic Transformation’ , in Malloy and Thorn, op cit, pp170-1).

4. Siles Zuazo led the MNR government until Paz Estenssoro returned from Argentina, he then became Vice-President.

5. Vicente Lombardo Toledano (1894-1968) was a prominent Mexican Stalinist and trade union leader who played a leading role in the slander campaign against Trotsky.

6. Lora states that the miners’ bloc won seven seats in the chamber of deputies and two in the senate (G Lora, A History of the Bolivian Labour Movement 1848-1971, Cambridge, 1977, p253).

7. A reference to Regis Debray’ s Revolution in the Revolution?, Harmondsworth, 1968.

8. In October 1970 Alfredo Ovando Candia’ s government was overthrown by a military coup, and the new government, headed by Generals Albarracín, Guachalla and Sattori was immediately challenged by more radical bourgeois/military elements around Juan Jose Torres. A huge general strike brought down the generals’ government, but the nationalists and Stalinists in the new unified working class body, the Comando Político, gave their support to Torres, and would have accepted posts in his government had he not withdrawn his offer. A right wing challenge to Torres in January 1971 was met with a mass working class upsurge, but on 19 August 1971 General Hugo Banzer Suarez staged a successful military coup, defeating the heroic resistance of the workers and students of La Paz. The POR did not effectively challenge the illusions of the nationalists and Stalinists in Torres.