Chris Harman

Revolution in the 21st Century

Conclusion: Knocking on History’s Door

As I was writing the first draft of this book, the latest wave of revolt in Bolivia forced the Bolivian president Mesa from office. Emails, web pages and newspaper reports painted a picture like that of Petrograd in the summer of 1917, Berlin in January 1919 or Barcelona in the autumn of 1936. They described general strikes; columns of peasants marching on the city; the occupation of oil wells and airports; striking miners handing sticks of gelignite to striking teachers to throw against police lines; attempts to invade the presidential palace; threats by petro-capitalists in the east of the country to secede from the state; workers in La Paz chanting, ‘Civil War, Yes!’; the congress replacing the president while intimidated by huge, angry crowds. Yet they also finally described a truce between the two sides, with an end to the strikes and the departure of demonstrators from La Paz.

Karl Marx once wrote about the ‘mole of history’, which bores away beneath the surface of events, suddenly revealing itself by undermining apparently all-powerful institutions. So it was in Bolivia.

The 1980s and 1990s had been terrible decades for the mass of the Bolivian people, just as they were in much of the rest of Latin America. Economic devastation was accompanied by neoliberal reforms resulting in living standards, already on a par with those in sub-Saharan Africa, sinking even lower. The working class was ravaged by closures, with the mass sacking of 20,000 tin miners (half the national total) in 1985. Politics became a game played between members of the white elite. The peasants, clinging to the plots of land given to them after a revolution in 1952, remained indifferent to calls for further struggle and the Bolivian left, once an important force, was a shadow of its former self.

Yet, barely noticeably, changes were slowly creating new forces able to challenge the established order. The peasantry began to find that its land was no longer secure, as agriculture became increasingly subject to market forces making it difficult for small farmers to hold on to what they had. The one crop with sure market potential, coca (from which cocaine is manufactured), was soon under threat from the US ‘war on drugs’. The penetration of even the most remote villages by modern communications increased the consciousness of oppression among the indigenous two thirds of the country’s population, the Aymara and Quechua peoples, whose first language is not Spanish. They began to organise against the inferior position imposed on them ever since the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire 470 years ago, recalling with pride past risings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Finally, the decline of other older industries was accompanied by the rise of a new working class. Indigenous people left the poverty of the countryside to find a livelihood in places like El Alto, the huge impoverished conurbation that hangs over the capital city, La Paz. So, while many commentators argued that Bolivia was undergoing ‘deindustrialisation’ and that the country’s working class was disappearing, the number of manufacturing workers actually rose – from 117,000 in the major cities in 1986 to 231,000 in 1995, with 38 per cent in workplaces of more than 30. These figures were matched by growing numbers of construction workers and miners of other metals than tin. By 1997, there were nearly as many wage earners – 1,400,000 – as there were peasants.

It was the logic of capitalism itself that gave active life to these new forces. The privatisation of water supplies in the Cochabamba region pushed up water prices for workers and peasants alike, causing tens of thousands to demonstrate, fight against the police and to discover in 2001 that by blocking roads they could bring the country as a whole to a halt. Success in beating privatisation in Cochabamba led to emulation of the tactics elsewhere, with protests and blockades by the coca growers and indigenous organisations. This example in turn created a new spirit of struggle in working class areas like El Alto and breathed life into the previously quiescent union federation, the COB, with the election of new leaders.

News that the government of the neoliberal president Lozada was selling off the country’s one great prospect for wealth, its recently discovered gas reserves, to multinationals brought the ferment to a head in October 2003. What began as spasmodic agitation suddenly erupted into mass strikes and confrontations after the police shot down scores of protesters marching towards La Paz. It was then that El Alto became the centre of the movement. It was then too that miners rediscovered their old traditions and militancy by marching with gelignite in clenched fists to join the masses in the capital.

The October rising led Lozada to flee the country in a helicopter (the third Latin American president to do so in three years). But there was neither the consciousness nor the organisation among the hundreds of thousands of protesters in La Paz and El Alto to determine who replaced him. His deputy, Mesa, took his place in the presidential palace and the mass of demonstrators departed, believing they had won a great victory but neoliberal policies continued as before. The next day at an expanded meeting of the COB union, delegate after delegate lamented the fact that they had not been able to raise the idea of a workers and peasants government.

As is often the case in revolutionary upheavals, the first successful uprising was followed by a period of precarious stability. The new government made attempts to divert popular anger into nationalist agitation against Chile, which had annexed Bolivia’s coastal region and blocked its access to the sea more than a century before. President Mesa held a referendum over the gas issue and managed to get away with phrasing the issue in such a way as to get a majority. Attempts at new mobilisations never seemed to get up a head of steam to repeat the October events.

An important factor in the impasse that followed October 2003 was the way, as also in past revolutionary upheavals, certain political figures and formations that had helped to lead the movement forward at previous stages now no longer did so. Indigenous leaders like Felipe Quispe of the Union of Peasant Workers had played an important role in articulating grievances against the Spanish speaking white elite who dominated official politics. But they allowed justified resentment at past treatment by the mestizo (mixed race Spanish speaking) section of the masses to divert them from pushing forward the struggle against the common enemy.

Evo Morales and his MAS party was the other channel for indigenous bitterness. They called for a constituent assembly to remould the country’s political institutions to reflect its ethnic make up. But dazzled by the large vote for president that Morales received in 2002, they followed a strategy of keeping a weak Mesa in power so that Morales would eventually have the chance of succeeding him by constitutional means in 2007 and so they urged a ‘yes’ vote in Mesa’s gas referendum.

The COB union leaders took a more left wing stance, denouncing the gas referendum and urging people to abstain or spoil their ballot papers. But their traditions were still very much that of the old working class, and had little influence among the newly radicalised indigenous forces, treating as a diversion their demand to be part of a new democratic political structure. As a result, Mesa not only stayed in office for 21 months, but for most of that period enjoyed a degree of support among many of those who had taken to the streets in October 2003.

But things do not simply stand still when a mass movement gets stuck in an impasse. Those associated with the old order forget their fright and began to reassert their belief in their god-given right to rule. Mesa’s government became increasingly like the overthrown Lozada government, preparing a law which left the majority of the gas and oil profits in private hands. Meanwhile in the lowland region in the east of the country around the city of Santa Cruz, where the gas and oil reserves are located, capitalist interests insisted that they would declare autonomy from the rest of the country if there was an attempt to use petroleum wealth for any purposes other than their own. They looked to support from the US and the supposedly left centre governments of Brazil and Argentina, whose oil companies are involved with Shell and BP in profiting from Bolivia’s petroleum resources.

This was the spark which reignited the urban and rural masses in June 2005. They saw the one chance of using the country’s wealth to overcome their poverty snatched away from them. They moved as they had 21 months previously to close down the whole country and besieged the presidential palace and congress.

The ruling class was paralysed. Mesa tried to hold on by balancing between the secessionists in Santa Cruz and the mass movement. He promised a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution in a way that would please Morales and his supporters and a referendum on autonomy that would please the Santa Cruz petro-capitalists. Condoleezza Rice pledged her support for Mesa, and Morales opposed driving him from office. But the movement on the streets was more powerful and more radical than ever. The nationalist language opposing gas profits going to foreigners now became class demands for gas nationalisation in the interests of the workers, the peasants and the urban poor.

When it became clear Mesa was beyond saving, the Congress decamped to Sucre from La Paz in the hope of escaping the siege and resolving things according to the wishes of its neoliberal majority. They placed their hopes briefly in Mesa’s constitutional successor, Vaca Diez, a representative of the Santa Cruz oligarchy. But it was already too late. They were besieged in Sucre too, as the workers movement paralysed all transport across the country. Congress passed over Vaca Diez to appoint as interim president Eduardo Rodriguez, head of the supreme court – but for six months only before elections.

Meanwhile, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church urged a ‘truce’, warning of the dangers of ‘extremism’, the Brazilian and Argentine governments applied pressure, and the US ambassador gave his seal of approval to the deal. After hectic negotiations, Evo Morales too backed it when he was assured there would be elections and the constituent assembly (a key factor in his decision, according to the reputable Buenos Aires paper Clarin was a cell phone call from Hugo Chavez advising him to do so). It was enough to signal the end of the demonstrations and a return to work by most of the strikers, tired after three weeks of struggle and suffering from food shortages as the road blockades stopped food arriving in the cities.

The Bolivian events illustrate all the points made in this book. The globalisation of capitalism tears people’s lives apart, often demoralising them at first, but then pushing them into situations where they feel they have no choice but to fight back. Precisely because capitalism cannot manage without an exploited class, it creates a new working class with the power to fight just as it destroys much of the old working class. Bolivia also demonstrates how a successful struggle can suddenly inspire a score of others and as this happens apparently forgotten traditions of solidarity and insurgency are reborn. With this, people’s attitudes to each other and to the state begin to be transformed, until they can conceive of a revolution taking place with the working class becoming the ruling class and the mass of people taking control of their own lives.

But Bolivia also shows how these things by themselves are not enough to bring about the change which people want. The movement paralysed the structures of power of existing society. But it never posed an alternative of its own. Without such an alternative, even feeding its own supporters was an insuperable problem. As the coordinating committee of the struggle in Cochabamba put it:

We have seen two things in the May–June struggle. On the one side, the magnificent force of the social movements is capable of paralysing the country and dealing with the manoeuvres of big business and the bad governments. On the other side, we have not been capable of imposing our own decisions and objectives on these same governments, although they are in the worst crisis they could face ...

In the June crisis there was a moment when the whole question of who held power in society was in the balance. One can never be sure in such circumstances whether the workers and peasants movements could have taken power into their own hands. The solidity of discipline in the army and police in such a potentially revolutionary situation can only be tested in practice – you engage in battle and then you see. But on this occasion the decisive battle was not engaged.

There was a potentially revolutionary situation in Bolivia. The ruling class was divided. The working class, the peasantry, the urban poor, even the mass of self-employed street traders felt things could not continue as before. There were signs that sections of the army were wobbling. But two additional elements needed to turn the potential into reality did not exist – there was no workers’ council or other popular form of revolutionary democracy that could unite the whole of the popular masses into a single organism standing in opposition to the old state. Nor did there exist an organised network of revolutionaries, a party, drawing together the most determined and militant activists in each of the various fronts of struggle that had emerged since the first victory in Cochabamba.

In the last days of the June struggle some activists did begin to look towards creating structures from below that could provide the first elements of democratic forms of self organisation. There was an initiative in El Alto for a Popular Revolutionary Assembly to take control of the city, to defend and feed it. In Cochabamba, the coordinating committee drew the conclusion that there had to be discussion about how to ‘little by little create forms of our own self government.’ But these initiatives came too late and with too little impetus to influence the outcome in June. People talked of an El Alto Commune but it never came into being.

The Bolivian struggle is far from over. The impact of the near-revolutionary events in June 2005 was to sweep Evo Morales to electoral office as president in December of that year on a programme of progressive reforms. But capitalism cannot satisfy the aroused hopes of the workers, peasants and indigenous peoples. Even the limited reform measures that have been implemented have roused the rich in Santa Cruz to build armed organisations that threaten to tear the country in two.

It remains to be seen what will happen next. But the real importance of the Bolivian events is not what they mean for one relatively small country. It is that they show how the endless uncertainty that characterises global capitalism repeatedly breeds potentially revolutionary resistance. The same spirit of resistance is to be seen in Venezuela. As in Bolivia, a government pledged to satisfy the needs of the mass of people still rules over a capitalist society, with massive concentrations of private wealth and enormous inequality. But also as in Bolivia, the surging desire for change from below, expressed in very large government demonstrations for ‘revolution’ and ‘socialism of the 21st century’, has created a rift between the classes. This will have to be resolved at some point in the future either by creation of a new state based on the democracy of workers and other exploited groups, or by the return of the old order.

Resistance is not confined to Bolivia and Venezuela, or even to Latin America. It is beginning make its mark on every continent. Things cannot be otherwise, since globalisation means global economic crisis, a global war drive, global environmental devastation and all the social convulsions that come in the train of such things. The rulers of Europe and North America tell workers they have no future unless they lower their wages, lengthen their working hours and worsen their conditions in order to compete with the workers of India and China. All this can only mean that there will be bitter class battles in the most advanced parts of the capitalist system as well as in the poorer parts.

None of this guarantees successful socialist revolution anywhere. Those who defend the existing system spend billions on arms; they have their police and their secret police, bribes for those who dance to their tune, a squalid gutter press, long experience of dividing and ruling and the ability to rely on habits of deference among those they oppress. Those who think nothing of blasting tens of thousands of people to death in order to establish their control over oil wells will do anything to try to stop a challenge to all their wealth and power. And yet they cannot break their dependence on us, the four or five billion people who labour for them in factories, fields, mines, offices, railway networks, truck depots, warehouses, power stations. Without our class they are nothing. And since their system cannot guarantee a fixed, stable existence for our class, revolts will flare up again and again in the present century as in the last. The question is not whether there will be revolutions in the century ahead, but in which direction those revolutions will go. Will they be snuffed out, as so often in the last century, as people put their trust in the lies and false promises of those who rule over them? Or will the new movement of the last few years rise to the task of uniting into revolutionary organisations all those among the exploited and oppressed able to see a little further than their fellows the evils of the system and the possibilities of overthrowing it.

Last updated on 5 October 2016