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Revolution and Counter Revolution in Bolivia

The Great Decade of Class Struggles


First Published: Fourth International, in two parts, May-June and July-August, 1952, Volume XIII, Nos. 3 and 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: 2005 by Andrew Pollack

We are happy to be able to present to. our readers this historical survey and political analysis of the volatile, revolutionary Bolivian proletariat. The recent revolution has brought the country where the “beggar sits on a mountain of gold” into the headlines. To a certain extent, all of Latin America awaits the next developments in Bolivia. In the struggle over control of the nation’s vast tin properties, now dominated and exploited by absentee monopoly interests in Wall Street and in Europe, there is being fought out the same battle we have been witnessing in Iran, in Egypt, in North Africa and in Southeast Asia. Our own oligarchy is anxiously watching this development, fearful that unless restrained in time, this revolution in Bolivia will kindle vast outbreaks among its semi-colonial slaves in Chile, Venezuela and elsewhere on the southern continent.

In many ways, the revolution in Bolivia is similar to outbreaks against imperialism and their military puppet regimes which have occurred since the end of the war. The vast movement of land-hungry peasants and starving workers is led at the beginning by a middle class, nationalist party, which ever seeking compromise, has always gone down to defeat. But in Bolivia a new factor—a decisive one—has entered in force on the revolutionary stage: the organized, militant working class movement. From the outset, miners and textile workers have raised their own demands, principally the nationalization of the natural resources, and have insisted that the government carry them out. Their intervention has split the governing party into a right and left wing whose present conflict foreshadows a later showdown between the toiling people on the one side and the combination of landed gentry, feudal capitalists and imperialists on the other.

Guillermo Lora is well qualified to treat with the subject. Leader of the Partido Revolucionaria Obrera, Bolivian section of the Fourth International, his name is associated with the heroic struggles of the tin miners and the Bolivian workers. Time and again he has paid for his activities by long terms in the prisons and concentration camps of Bolivian reaction. The recent revolution restored his liberty and once again he is in the thick of the struggle.

His study of Bolivian events since the Chaco War should help give the reader an insight into the peculiarities and dynamics of the revolutionary anti-imperialist movement. It should cut through the slanders and confusion disseminated by capitalist journalists whose analysis begins and ends with the characterization of the MNR, the ruling party, as “fascist” or “Peronist.” It should serve as a guide not only to present developments in Bolivia but in other Latin American countries as well.

The concluding installment of Lora’s study, which ends in this issue with the fall of the first MNR government in 1946, will be published in a subsequent issue of Fourth International.

In 1932, Bolivia was forced by its imperialist overlords to make war against Paraguay to defend the interests of Standard Oil then threatened by Royal Dutch Shell which had established its investments in Paraguay. It was at this time that the intelligentsia, influenced by Marxism, attempted to show the masses a revolutionary road: “To act immediately and by every possible means for the end of the war, for the re-establishment of peace and the overthrow of the feudal governments of Bolivia and Paraguay which place the interests of the oil companies over those of the respective peoples’.” (From the program of the Tupac Amaru group.)

The world crisis of the 1930’s which had impelled the petty bourgeoisie of the continent on to the political arena, marked the starting point of the revolutionary upsurge of the masses, a process which was interrupted by the war with Paraguay. Both of these events however hastened the regroupment of the radicalized petty bourgeois intellectuals in a number of “left wing” circles. The war was the answer of the Salamanca government to the unprecedented social crisis which was convulsing the country.

The Chaco War brought to an end a historic stage: The stage of the undisputed reign of the feudal bourgeoisie, of liberal reforms, of the building of railroads, of a trade boom, of a lightning-like rise of mining developments, and also of the stage of unorganized working class revolts which were drowned in blood. A new stage was ushered in: the stage of the definitive decline and decomposition of the ruling classes in which a series of petty bourgeois military governments were to succeed one another, in which the Bolivian proletariat would enter the political struggle and would organize its own party, the POR (the Revolutionary Workers Party), in the wake of the bankruptcy of centrism and of reformism, for the overthrow of capitalism. The most salient fact of this stage is represented by the independent organization and the political party of the proletariat which had previously been an appendage of bourgeois and then of petty bourgeois movements. While the origins of the POR date from the crisis of the pre-war period they are connected to the struggle against the world massacre organized by imperialism and to the widespread battles undertaken by the exploited masses at the end of the war.

The Petty Bourgeois Military Governments

The petty bourgeoisie modeled its political formations along the lines of those organized by the proletariat. In reality it was aided in this task by the military governments which needed political support. The POR, on its side, existed since 1934.

In view of the numerical weight of the petty bourgeoisie, it can be said that Bolivia is a petty bourgeois country in its social composition. Oscillating between the feudal bourgeoisie and the proletariat, this class in turn is composed of several social strata: artisans, small proprietors, small tradesmen, usurers, etc. As a class, it is a vestige of the past consisting in the main of artisans and a large part of the peasantry. On the other hand imperialist penetration in the country gave rise to new social strata which have an enormous importance in the ranks of the urban bourgeoisie: technicians, government employees, the liberal professions, the intelligentsia, etc. Despite their differences imperialism and the native feudal bourgeoisie have, so to speak, split the petty bourgeois mass into two distinct and even antagonistic sectors; the majority of this class suffers the consequences of feudal exploitation, the yoke of imperialism, the backward state of the country and lives under subhuman conditions. The process of proletarianization of this class does not keep pace with the growth of poverty. The integration of the country into the world capitalist system has led to the economic ruin of the petty bourgeoisie which has become semi-parasitic in character. A privileged minority in the upper levels of this class render service to imperialism and to the native ruling class. The intelligentsia, which in 1930 belatedly achieved the “University Reform,” an expression of a peculiar aspect of the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for influence over the middle classes, acquired enormous importance in the history of the country. In large part this intelligentsia is a product of the dislocation of the dominant strata. It thinks of itself as playing an independent social role because of the bankruptcy of the university and of the liberal professions which represented an obstacle to its development, and it is hungry for revolutionary ideas.

However the petty bourgeoisie is incapable of developing an independent policy. Even if, under the pressure of the masses, it succeeds in elaborating a program of national liberation .and agrarian reform, even if it assumes the leadership of the national revolutionary movement, that is as far as it is capable of going. At a given stage of the struggle it will join with the feudal bourgeoisie and imperialism to crush the masses whose revolt endangers the system -of private property.

Moreover, the political weakness of the Bolivian petty bourgeoisie is demonstrated by the fact that it always requires the support of military camarillas to come to power.

In 1936, Colonel David Toro formed his “Socialist” government, a direct result of the situation created by the Chaco War. Apparently taking the anti-imperialist road, it nationalized the vested interests of Standard Oil but it soon capitulated to the Yankees. First, it abandoned its program of national liberation, it set about to preserve order through repressive measures so as to enable the mine owners to better exploit their properties and then it gave up its project of currency control. Toro’s betrayal aroused the discontent of the masses and undermined the government.

The Busch (Lieutenant-Colonel German Busch) government (1937-39), which came to power after a coup d’etat against the Toro government, assumed the guise of renovator of the ideas of national liberation set forth before 1932. On June 7th, 1939 it obliged exporters to sell 100% of their currency to the central bank. Bold as he was, President Busch did not have the time to reflect on the illusory nature of his measures dealing with the so-called economic liberation of the country. He fell victim to an assassin in August 1939.

Both governments had many common traits in that they had mobilized the proletariat, while controlling it, for the purpose of exercising pressure over imperialism in order to extort some advantages which would tend to stabilize the internal situation and cope with the ever-present threats of the feudal bourgeoisie. But each time these working class mobilizations went to the point of ridding themselves of governmental leadership and of taking a revolutionary road they were brutally suppressed. In his aim of strangling the workers’ movement, Toro sought and found the aid of those who today lead the PIR. Once this aim was achieved he did not hesitate to hound them as well. His regime was fundamentally anti-Communist and always considered extremist propaganda a crime. Neither of these governments touched the land question and both crushed the periodic risings of the masses. The characteristic feature of both these governments was their alliance with political groups of the petty bourgeoisie.

The politicians of the petty bourgeoisie (Gonzales. Baldivieso, Tamayo, Saracho, etc.) constituted the Socialist Party—which never attracted a popular following—in order to serve the military governments and to derive substantial gains and privileges. Today they are unconditional agents of Yankee imperialism. Others who received their political schooling in the SP later went over to the ranks of the MNR and the FIR.

The Villaroel Government (1943-1946)

This too was a military government allied to a section of the petty bourgeoisie, the MNR (National Revolutionary Movement). In keeping with the traditions of the country regarding pronunciamentos it established itself in power in the December 23, 1943 coup d’etat and disappeared in a tragic way.

Villaroel-Paz Estenssoro came to power at a time when the discontent of the masses was undermining the reactionary Penaranda government. Working class action, whose culminating point was reached on December 21, 1942 at Catavi, was not completely eliminated by the Catavi massacre but it was already on the decline. At the time the MNR had control neither of the proletariat nor of the peasants nor of the majority of the petty bourgeoisie. It was known only as a group of journalists, who, under the influence of the German embassy and paid by it, had conducted an extensive campaign against Yankee imperialism. It sought to control the workers’ movement through the government.

The Catavi strike was of enormous importance in the sense that it marked one of the most important stages in the elimination of the PIR from the leadership of the proletariat. This party which had appeared as the undisputed leader of the exploited had succeeded though with great difficulty, in obtaining control of the unions up to the end of 1942. Supporters of the PIR had reorganized the unions and constituted the CSTV (Trade Union Federation of Bolivian Workers) affiliated to the CTAL controlled by the Stalinists.

Its policy of class collaboration, its ties with the feudal bourgeoisie during and after the Second World War, under pressure of the Stalinist nucleus in the PIR leadership, caused its isolation from the masses. The strike committee requested aid but the PIR (Left Revolutionary Party) had decided to curb any movement which might paralyze the mines or the railroads; this in its opinion was the best tactic of aiding North American “democracy.” This desertion of the masses was facilitated by the fact that the PIR lacked the cadfres that might have exercised control over it.

Evidence is available showing how the Patino mining firm imposed the policy of bloody repression on the government. The PIR collaborated in this repressive policy of bloody repression on the government. The PIR collaborated in this repressive policy but that did not prevent it from being hounded in turn. The strike did not succeed in transforming itself into a political movement and was impotent in its isolation. The only way to have avoided such an outcome was to have broadened the movement, i.e. to have impelled it forward instead of curbing it, but the workers were shamefully betrayed by their leadership.

The MNR took the offensive during the parliamentary interpolations concerning the strike and politically capitalized on the popular ferment. The PIR limited itself to applauding the MNR. The MNR’s activity was openly stimulated by Minister Silvetti Arze, one of those who had organized the massacre of the miners, but who was seeking to politically crush the PIR. It should also be said that this same Arze, during the period of the antifascist democratic front, had declared that he was wrong in supporting the MNR against the PIR.

Judging from the violent anti-Yankee campaign carried on by the MNR while it was in opposition it might have been thought that the Villaroel-Estenssoro government intended to take measures against imperialism. But after examining the policy of preceding governments in this sphere, we can conclude that the object of the Villaroel-Estenssoro government in its struggle against imperialism was to bring pressure on the USA in order to wrest important gains for the national economy and to satisfy the urgent needs of the Bolivian state. Its anti-imperialist intentions were expressed in the mobilization of the working class through which, let us say in passing, it sought to defend itself against the threats of the feudal bourgeoisie. The balance sheet of three years of power demonstrated that the Villaroel government was less progressive than its predecessors Toro and Busch. It did not nationalize any branch of the economy, nor did it oblige the mine owners to sell 100% of their gold currency. The land remained in the hands of the proprietors. Experience demonstrated in this sphere that since the forms of servitude are tied to forms of property they cannot be altered merely by some random kind of legislation. The revision of the laws on social reform came the closest to satisfying some of the needs of the working class. One of the most important of these—the law on voluntary retirement—was adopted by the legislature and accepted by the president who claimed to be “more friendly to the poor than to the rich” and considered this law as being opposed to the interests of the industrialists. It is noteworthy to point out of the parliamentary policy of the MNR that it opposed a proposal for a progressive tax on big property. The MNR had promised to free the peasants but when the latter attempted to divide the latifundias they were crushed by the repressive forces of the government.

All important working class mobilization was carefully controlled by the government. The FSTMB (Miners’ Federation), most important trade union organization of the country, had been organized by the government at the Huanuni Congress in 1944 in such a way as to put the political leadership of the federation in the hands of the Minister of Labor. The Union of Textile Workers and the Federation of Flour Mill Workers were also constituted under the auspices of the government; both organizations are practically non-existent today. Prior to 1943 there had been regional organizations of miners and textile workers in Oruro and also in Potosi. The PIR, losing its influence over the workers to the government, the CSTB lost all importance as a nationwide organization. Only the railroad workers federation, which had an organizational tradition and was composed of relatively political workers, succeeded in evading government control. Its most outstanding leader, Noel Carbagal, carried on activity on two fronts: in the PIR and in Freemasonry. In reality he was an instrument of reaction.

Under these conditions the Villaroel government gained a relative popularity among the population comparable to that enjoyed by the Belzu government which had also mobilized the artisans and the native population against the landowners. The masses believed that by organizing and fighting behind the Villaroel government they were fighting for their own liberation, for their own interests. They believed that it was “their own” government and that it had taken upon itself the fulfillment of their aspirations by fighting against the bosses. But experience soon awakened a critical attitude in the masses regarding the limitations of the “progressive” governmental program. Their demands became more and more numerous and they were presented in ultimatum form.

The dynamism of the mobilization of the masses created the premises for an opposition to Villaroel’s policy. A revolutionary regroupment of the exploited took shape around the slogan of nationalization without indemnity of the mines signifying defiance of the government which had shown its impotence in realizing its so-called program of national liberation. This process of radicalization began among the most politicalized minorities and subsequently extended to the broad masses. It would be schematic how-ever to say that the proletariat at the time had definitively broken with the government. The consciousness of the masses—when the revolution has not yet begun—proceeds only in slow, complex forms and is never a direct process. In any case, it was becoming more and more obvious that the Bolivian proletariat was moving further and further away from the government’s orientation and was beginning to take revolutionary paths. If these developments had not been interrupted by the events of July 1946 it is certain that the revolutionary pressure of the masses would have led to the overthrow of the Villaroel government. The government’s answer to the new situation was to suppress the most advanced revolutionary elements. The repression reached even into the MNR, a number of whose members had inspired the peasant organization “Bolidia” and were deported to the east.

Why did the Villaroel-Paz Estenssoro government fail to realize anti-imperialist objectives comparable to those of other petty bourgeois military governments? This government was not lacking in good intentions; only it was organically incapable of realizing them. The pressure of Yankee imperialism on the new regime installed by the MNR movement was so strong that it forced a capitulation from the beginning. The USA recognized the new government only after it had accepted the most humiliating conditions. It was obliged to eliminate from the governmental group those men who had carried on an anti-Yankee and pro-Nazi campaign such as Carlos Montenegro, Auguste Cespedes, etc., while Mr. Avra Warren, an emissary of the State Department, was authorized to conduct an inquiry on the safeguarding of invested capital. The difficulties created by Wall Street’s pressure made it impossible for the government to arouse the power it commanded in workers’ support against imperialism. Maintenance of order, respect for property, safeguarding of capitalist profits—such were the pillars on which the government built its existence.

However in the constant endeavor to preserve the support of the masses as much as possible it found itself obliged to make many concessions in the improvement of living and working conditions as well as in the participation of the masses in the political life of the country by granting them certain trade union rights. Although the social reforms adopted by the Villaroel government were not at all extraordinary, they did not fail to arouse clashes between itself and the employers which the government exploited to emphasize its so-called laborism. The anti-imperialism of the MNR was already history. Its organ La Calle, around which the party was organized, owed its popularity to the campaign it has carried on during the Second World War against American imperialism. The petty bourgeois intellectuals hoped that the victory of German imperialism would aid in expelling the Yankee masters from Latin America. But as the latter had won out, the “anti-imperialists” set about to eradicate their past and to win the sympathy of the Yankees who on their part had not forgotten these anti-imperialist antics.

The experience of the Villaroel government demonstrated that the petty bourgeoisie is not capable of fulfilling the bourgeois democratic tasks such as national liberation from imperialism, the destruction of big landed property and the realization of national unity. The preceding governments had revealed by their policy that even if they could make a beginning in the fulfillment of such a program they had to abandon it at a given, moment because they could not carry it to a conclusion. It should be added that they suppressed the workers’ movement each time it tried to go beyond their leadership; in this repression, they were allied to reaction because, in the final analysis, the working class mobilization was directed against the system of private property. The second lesson to be drawn from all this experience is that the masses, even when mobilized by governments or petty bourgeois parties, are led by the dynamism of their own mobilization to go beyond these leaderships, to put forward their own demands and to liberate themselves from all oppression. But if a powerful revolutionary vanguard does not succeed in gaining the leadership of the mobilized masses they are always defeated by the class enemy.

The unceasing campaign by American imperialism against the Villaroel government crowned by its overthrow in July 1946, was not caused by the danger which the government in itself represented for the USA. To be sure, they did not exclude the possibility of the MNR reviving its anti-imperialist attitude in the event of a change in the international situation, but the real reason for their attack against the Villaroel government lay elsewhere. Washington quickly perceived that the government demagogy directed to the Bolivian proletariat was inherently an enormous potential danger for capitalist society. In effect, to the degree that the mobilization of the masses grew broader and deeper the chances of the government keeping it under control diminished, at the same time opening a perspective to the masses of realizing national liberation under a revolutionary leadership.

For the first time in the history of Bolivia the proletariat courageously attempted to go beyond the petty bourgeois leadership and to rally around an anti-capitalist program; for the first time also there was an impulsion to the left under the anti-imperialist slogan of nationalization of the mines. In their offensive against the Villaroel government, the Yankees were much more concerned with the danger of their being eventually expelled from the country by the Bolivian masses than they were with the social reform measures. They believed that by destroying the Villaroel regime, they would at the same time remove the danger of a proletarian revolution which already appeared on the horizon. Wall Street dreamed of executing Villaroel and the workers’ movement on the slabs of the Plaza Murillo.

The essentially petty bourgeois Villaroel government assumed a Bonapartist character by placing itself equidistant from the proletariat and from imperialism. Its history is that of efforts to secure support in the masses in order to resist the pressure of the USA and, to a certain degree, of the utilization of police and military terror against the most advanced section of the proletariat, i.e. the revolutionary opposition. A transitional government, it was in the grip of contradictions arising from its maneuvers with the two camps.

The Third Congress of the Miners (1946)

The undercurrent of workers’ opposition to the Villaroel government which had proved itself incapable of satisfying the aspirations of the masses and of fighting against their exploitation by the employers expressed itself publicly in a coherent manner at the Third Miners’, Congress held in March 1946 at Catavi. The opposition was directed as much against the PIR, allied to the feudal bourgeoisie and to imperialism, as against the capitalist regime; it had nothing in common with oligarchical reaction.

As the days of the Villaroel government drew to an end the revolutionary upsurge of the masses began and it came to a climax, after many detours, with the holding of the Miners’ Congress at Pulacayo (1946). The Fourth Congress of the POR had already noted a left turn of the masses. At Catavi, the miners surprised the pro-imperialist press by breaking from the tutelage of their official leaderships and by imposing their own aims which were very far from those of the MNR. “Official” trade unionism began to decompose. The following demands were adopted at Catavi: the unity of the working class as against the PIR program of “national unity” with the feudal bourgeoisie; workers’ control of the mines, the sliding scale of wages and hours, formation of workers’ militias, etc. It was at this time that the government unleashed its repressive forces against the revolutionary wing which was beginning to take shape in the ranks of the proletariat.

Patino, on his side, laid off the miners at Huanuni en masse. The trade unions answered by demanding compensation as of the date of the layoff in conformity with the law adopted by the government. In face of Patino’s formal refusal, the government had to pay out some six million Bolivianos to the laid off workers.

On the other hand the Third Congress of the miners marked the complete split between the PIR and the proletariat. The pro-Stalinists trained the heavy artillery of their propaganda against the Congress. Servile toward the government, they dispatched their troops of agitators to Catavi to disseminate their thesis that the mining masses were nothing but fascists.

The Stalinist-Influenced Petty Bourgeoisie (The PIR)

After the 1943 coup d’etat, the PIR attempted to come to power through the back door while offering its services to the government under the pretext that the bourgeois democratic revolution had begun. Its services rejected, the Stalinist-influenced petty bourgeoisie then sought an alliance with the parties connected with the feudal bourgeoisie: the Liberal Party, The Unified Socialist Party, the Socialist Republican Party, all interested in overthrowing the Villaroel government to put an end to the mass movement which was becoming more and more threatening. In this way the PIR was utilized by reaction to divide and destroy the workers’ movement. In 1944, J. A. Arze organized the Bolivian Democratic Union which in the following year became the Anti-Fascist Democratic Front supported by the CSTB, the University Federation controlled by the PIR, and the Democratic Union of Women. The Anti-Fascist Democratic Front was the hub of the conspiracy by the feudal bourgeoisie and the imperialists against the Villaroel government. Two movements were face to face in this stage: One represented by the revolutionary opposition led by the most advanced elements of the proletariat; and that represented by the right opposition led by imperialism in whose ranks the Stalinist-influenced petty bourgeoisie played the role of franc-tireur. The reactionary campaign was crowned with the slogan of “national unity.”

The Villaroel-Paz Estenssoro government was caught between two fires: on the one side the conspiracy of the right wing, on the other the ever greater pressure of the masses who sought to go beyond their leadership. However it did nothing to regain the confidence of the exploited by means of a program which, through the nationalization of the mines and the railroads and the expropriation of the land, would move toward the destruction of the economic power of imperialism as well as of the native bourgeoisie. On the contrary its police measures were aimed at barring the road to the revolutionary opposition. What other proofs are needed to demonstrate the inability of the petty bourgeoisie to carry on an effective struggle against imperialism?

The Popular Rising of July 21, 1946

The middle classes and the proletariat of the cities carried the burden of the wasteful policies of the government and of the economic boycott by imperialism and the feudal bourgeoisie. The fall of Villaroel was preceded by a wave of strikes in La Paz for an increase of wages while in the mine basins the conflicts between the workers and the employers were multiplied. On July 8, 1946, the teachers, supported and followed by the university students, began a nationwide strike for an increase of appointments and the restoration of teachers’ autonomy; railroad workers also went on strike for economic demands.

There were no organizational ties between these movements in the cities and those taking place in the mines. The strikers had no nationwide organization which could have coordinated their action. Nevertheless all these strikes had the same roots of discontent. The poverty of the masses increased, they were deceived by a “popular” government—which was already on its way out—which did not give satisfaction to their needs.

The peoples’ movement in the cities had a special character: From the beginning it had been encouraged, then controlled, by the feudal bourgeoisie and imperialism through the PIR. In this sense one can correctly say as has already been said: “The responsibility for the rising of July 21st rests with US financial groups.” “La Rosca” utilized the discontent of the masses, whose revolutionary upsurge more and more embraced the whole country, as a lever against the Villaroel government—against the government which could only satisfy the aspiration of the masses on condition of breaking in a definitive revolutionary way with all its ties to imperialism and feudalism. [“La Rosca”—Literally: the chain. In Bolivia, this is an expression designating the ruling class as a whole connected by common interests.—Ed.]

The Center of the Conspiracy

The general headquarters of the conspiracy was at La Paz University; incapable of seeing further ahead, the MNR elements made the mistake of storming the university and shooting its professors. The directing brain of the conspiracy was director of the university H..Ormachea Zalles, well known reactionary, grand master of Freemasonry, acting in liaison with the North American embassy. Although Zalles’ role was well known, his life was never in danger. In reality, Freemasonry, which represents the interests of the imperialists in Bolivia had its fifth column in the very ranks of the government and in the leadership in the MNR. Ormachea Zalles had hoped to bring his “brother” Masons also under control but seeing that Villaroel was taking the orders of the “Radepa” military lodge and was supported by its armed force, he decided to overthrow Villaroel, organized a series of coup d’etats and finally utilized popular discontent for that purpose.

Before playing the dangerous card of popular uprising, imperialism and the right wing parties had recourse, unsuccessfully, however, to several military revolts whose preparations had been largely financed by the big mining companies. One of these revolts occurred at the end of 1944, another broke out towards the middle of 1945, and still another on June 13, 1946. It had proved impossible to overthrow the Villaroel government by such means.

Every mobilization of the masses carries with it the grave danger for reaction that the masses can shake off their official leadership and follow a revolutionary party to the seizure of power. Always concerned with this possibility, Villaroel’s enemies from the beginning were careful to avoid taking such measures that would lead to a revolutionary awakening of the masses. The PIR rendered incomparable services in this counter-revolutionary task. The mobilization of the masses was organized within the framework of the organizations controlled by the PIK (Federation of Teachers and Students, Railroad Workers Federation, FOS, CSTB, etc.). The sectors of the petty bourgeoisie which had adhered to the struggle thus found an organization prepared in advance and controlled by reaction. The Villaroel government overthrown, the masses threatened to continue on their own road and tried to prevent the entry of “rosca” elements into the new government but reaction had already succeeded in binding the masses through tripartite committees directed by the PIR. They were further disoriented when a “workers’” minister turned up in the new governmental combination.

A Popular Uprising

The uprising of July 21st was a popular movement but it was prepared and led by imperialism and the feudal bourgeoisie. If a powerful revolutionary party had existed it would have been able to defeat the maneuvers of the PIR and place itself at the head of the rebellious masses; the uprising would then have become an important phase of the proletarian revolution. The big mine interests were-so sure of the PIR that they did not oppose the transformation of economic strikes into political strikes such as occurred with the general strike which broke out in La Paz a few days before the rising.

Guided by their class instinct, the miners who had been moving toward a break with the MNR, did not follow the process taking place in La Paz, where a complete split had developed between the proletariat and the government. The miners feared that the “rosca” would return to power in the event that the government was overthrown. Forgetting their experience they became more Villaroelist than ever, for Villaroel in their eyes represented “their” revolution. If the mining masses had been able to completely emancipate themselves from the influence of the government they would have thus placed themselves at the head of the exploited who were fighting in La Paz and the history of Bolivia would have taken a different course after July 21st.

Villaroel had mobilized the masses among whom he enjoyed great influence in order to defend himself against the attacks of reaction. But to do that effectively he would have had to act differently, namely to satisfy the economic demands of the masses, then to prove by acts that he had decided to destroy the capitalist regime. The “rosca” would not have succeeded in overthrowing him had he begun a new stage by nationalizing the mines and the railroads. But Villaroel did nothing in this direction however necessary it was for his self-defense; he was convinced that the masses would continue to move towards a frontal attack against the system of private property. Fundamentally Villaroel was in greater fear of being overwhelmed by the revolutionary tide of the masses than of being overthrown by the “rosca.” The last days of his government were characterized by the breakup of the leading top group, by the struggle between the military clan and the MNR clan which had been tied to the MNR by ministerial posts.

(To be continued)

Part II, published July-August, 1952

Following is the concluding installment of Guillermo Lora’s study on Bolivia which began in the May-June issue under the caption “The Great Decade of Class Struggles.” The author is a leader of the Partido Revolucionaria Obrera, Bolivian section of the Fourth International. Intimately associated with the heroic struggles of the tin miners and workers of the country, he paid for his activities by long terms in prisons and concentration camps. Liberated by the recent revolution, he is once again in the thick of the fight.

* * *

The Miners’ Congress at Pulacayo (1946)

The fall of Villaroel did not arrest the revolutionary upsurge; on the contrary it greatly stimulated it and gave it new forms. However—and this is a fact of enormous importance which was to have its effects on subsequent developments—the process of differentiation between the aims of the masses and the governmental program came to an end as quickly as it had begun. The masses continued to view the Villaroel regime as a revolutionary government, identifying it with the program of the proletarian revolution. This confusion, further augmented by the repressive measures against the MNR, has not completely disappeared to the present day.

In one leap, the miners moved to the forefront of the revolutionary Bolivian masses, while in the cities the proletariat sought to break the yoke of the tripartite committees controlled by a petty bourgeois leadership. The bulk of the masses succeeded in establishing a liaison with the Miners’ Federation and indicated that they were ready to follow its leadership. These important events occurred in a situation which found the revolutionary vanguard still weak. It was thus that a trade union organization—the Miners’ Federation—had to assume tasks proper to a revolutionary party.

The revolutionary upsurge attained its climax at the Miners Congress held at Pulacayo in November 19-16? as a special convention to decide the orientation of the Federation. The climate stirred with revolution: the miners hurled themselves at the employers and “their” government who beat a retreat before them; they made their demands prevail; they had absolute confidence in their strength and organization; they considered themselves stronger than reaction; they were confident of achieving everything, even the revolution.

The Pulacayo Theses, unanimously adopted, constituted a program of proletarian revolution around which the workers of all Bolivia began to rally. The echo of this program found among the masses and its power of attraction showed that it was in harmony with the needs of the struggle. However the Pulacayo Theses lacked precision in its characterization of the situation. Although containing the formulation of tasks whose realization would necessarily pose the struggle for the seizure of power, the Theses did not make that its essential task. In reality it took the point of departure that the revolutionary situation would continue for some time. The criticisms made by the POR of the Pulacayo Theses had already demonstrated that any lack of precision on the tasks to be accomplished would turn into an insurmountable obstacle for the masses and become-a factor curbing revolutionary developments.

Despite the general confusion, the isolation of the city workers and the miners was partly avoided. However, there were still two obstacles to be overcome: that represented by the PIR (a middle class party influenced by the Stalinists.—Ed.), acting under the inspiration of the mining magnates, and the absence of a trade union federation, which despite all efforts made in this direction had encountered many difficulties, particularly because the question had so long been delayed.

The Pulacayo Congress had decided that the conflicts growing out of the attempts of the employers to close the mines at San Jose and Oplaca should be met by the occupation of these mines by the miners. The Congress reckoned that such an occupation would provide the stimulant for action of the workers in the rest of the country and that the? question would thus be transformed into a struggle for power. Unquestionably, the Pulacayo Theses was hailed by the working masses and even by broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie (teachers, university students) who showed themselves ready to follow the decisions and the slogans of the Congress.

However, events in Bolivia tragically proved that the leadership was lagging behind the rapid process of change which was taking place in the revolutionary consciousness of the masses. In fact, the workers were on a war footing and even went beyond the initiatives of their leaders, organized and armed their own cadres with an eye to coming battles for which they were already preparing.

The Ebb Tide Sets In

The mining magnates were also conscious of the times in which they were living. Retreating in panic before the workers’ upsurge, they were ready to yield to the workers’ demands while carefully watching the attitude of the Miners’ Federation as well as that of the POR (Revolutionary Workers Party, Bolivian section of the Fourth International). In the meantime the workers were wasting their energies in isolated skirmishes. When the conflict was reaching its climax, the trade union leaders, overwhelmed by the enormous tasks facing them, retreated instead of carrying out the mandate they had been given. They gave orders to return to work and granted a new postponement to the employers while engaging in negotiations with the government.

The consequences of this policy were disastrous, for what was involved was not simply a local conflict but the future of the proletariat and of the revolutionary movement. Imperialism and the feudal bourgeoisie then came to the conclusion that they had overestimated the revolutionary caliber of the workers’ leadership. Seizing on the truce they had been granted, they went over to the attack forcing the workers to retreat. The ebb tide which had set in at. San Jose and Oplaca was consummated by the massacre at Catavi in 1949.

The Miners’ Congress at Colquiri in 1947 took note of the depth of this retreat and-decided to adopt a whole series of defensive measures in anticipation of an appropriate moment to begin offensive strikes. It was under these conditions that the Bolivian proletariat suffered the greatest of its defeats, namely the wholesale discharge of the workers of the Patino mines (at Catavi and Llajlagua in December 1947) ordered by the PIR minister, A. Mendizabal.

President Hertzog, whose candidacy was financially supported by Patino (one of the Big Three mining magnates), was instructed to annihilate the workers’ movement. The repression at Catavi, where the most vigorous sector of the Miners Federation was destroyed, even though temporarily, was one side of this plan. The goverment calculated on putting over its plan through a campaign to discredit the trade union leadership with the aim of dividing the workers’ forces. Hertzog had declared in the press that he would not soil his hands with workers’ blood.

Onslaught of Reaction

But the efforts of the proletariat begin the upward climb again, which was indicated by the reorganization of the union at Catavi-Llallagua, made the mine bosses understand that their decisive methods were inadequate. The tin magnates demanded that the executive power carry through a program of violent repression. The dismissal of Hlertzog and his replacement by Urriolagbitia was a simple episode of conflict between the mining bosses and the government on the question of the violent destruction of the trade unions.

With the first signs of a new revolutionary upsurge, reaction believed the time opportune to drown it in blood and found the pretext in the struggle between the miners and the employers at Catavi over the question of a wage increase. In reality, the conflict involved the government which wanted to enforce its decisions at the time and was confronted with the opposition of the employers. The trade union leadership tried its best to prevent the workers from being lead into the trap of employers or the government’s repression. However the arrival of troops and police proved, confirming the warning made by the POR, that a massacre was in preparation.

The provocation went to the point of the arrest of leaders of the Miners’ Federation and known members of the POR who-were exiled. In this way they removed the leading cadres who would have been able to avoid the clash between the armed forces and the exasperated workers. On this fatal day, May 28, 1949, the workers replied by taking several supervisory employes of the mining firms as hostages, and the slaughter of about 2,000 workers began.

It is possible that the unionists, watching the assassination of their class brothers and the destruction of their meeting halls, had killed the hostages. It is also possible that the government, poorly informed about the smouldering unrest, had not expected a violent reaction from the workers. Patino had done his work well in preparing and executing the massacre.

That the masses had been prepared for a revolutionary offensive was demonstrated by the fact that the May 28th massacre led the proletariat to react on a national scale by a general strike of a political nature which had been previously unknown. The decapitation of the workers’ leadership with their aims still unattained caused the defeat of the proletariat. The most brutal repression was unleashed. Thousands of workers were arrested throughout the country, sent to concentration camps or exiled while others were imprisoned. The whole gamut of repression, so characteristic of Latin American countries, was put into effect.

Mercilessly hounded by the forces of “order,” desperate and without leadership, the masses took advantage of the slightest opportunity to hurl themselves into suicide attacks. For instance, during the 1949 civil war, having heard that “the revolution had triumphed” the workers of Siglo XX went to their death in an onslaught against the police forces.

Role of MNR

The MNR (National Revolutionary Party, now in power—Ed.) at no time attempted to seize power by mobilizing the masses because it knew that such a mobilization would jeopardize its rule. Its habitual tactic consisted of preparing coup d’etats with the assistance of the military groups of the Rapeda (an officers’ club). The Bolivian experience demonstrated that the extension of the struggle between the government and the insurgent masses allowed the masses to embark on political activity. When that happened, the exploited entered the fight under their own anti-imperialist banner which at the time had nothing in common with that of the MNR. That was demonstrated in a general way when the 1949 civil war was instigated by the MNR.

A series of military pronunciamentos occurred simultaneously in several places except at La Paz. The defeat of the coup d’etat at La Paz, the capital, resulted in the prolongation of the struggle everywhere else and won over broad sections of the population. At Potosi and Santa Cruz, the most advanced elements of the proletariat and the POR played a great role by republishing and disseminating the substance of the Pulacayo Theses to point the revolutionary road to the masses.

The foreign press hastened to announce, the outbreak of a general strike, at least of the miners, which was possible in the logic of events but which did not mature because of the MNR’s policy which had never envisaged such action for the purpose of the revolutionary seizure of power. Like other worker groupings, the miners did not go on strike. The textile workers and the POR, who had desired this form of struggle, were not considered a focal point for action.

The civil war of 1949 had been prepared and unleashed by the MNR but it was not the less surprised by the effects even of a limited mobilization of the masses. The MNR leaders did not count on an extended struggle but rather based their tactic on taking the enemy by surprise. But seeing that the march of events did not conform to their prearranged plans they made ready to flee sacking the banks to pocket needed funds. Nowhere, in none of the-provinces where the administration was in the hands of the MNR, was the least program of social transformation elaborated. If, as a government, it had confiscated big property, nationalized the banks, the railroads, etc., it would have had the great masses of the country behind it.

For despite the way the events had unfolded, the struggle of itself had stirred the consciousness of the masses, who were intinctively moving to a revolutionary program. The seeds sown by the Pulacayo Theses had found a favorable soil in the combative spirit of the masses.

When defeat seemed inevitable, some departmental commandos invited the POR to join them, as was the case at Cochabamba. The MNR demonstrated by its last minute attitude how desperate it had become and how concerned it was in seeking allies on whom it could attempt to thrust the responsibility for the defeat. The POR on its side decided to struggle shoulder to shoulder with the proletariat and the petty bourgeois masses engaged or liable to be engaged in combat. But it was the proletariat as a whole which had to pay the price for the defeat of the movement started by the MNR.

The Movement Revives

It was the miners, above all, attempting to resume the struggle during this period of repression, who ended by exhausting themselves, their organizations disappearing. However, it was the miners who were the first to reorganize themselves and to take stock of their strength. The textile workers regrouped themselves again to go over to the attack but they continued to remain isolated from the proletariat and the masses in general.

The formation of the Coordination Committee, a kind of federation, non-existent during the preceding struggle, marked a step forward but the committee was weak because most of the trade union organizations were only formally affiliated to it without involving their rank and file. The most serious error committed by the leadership of this committee was to view a preliminary struggle as though it were the final battle for the destruction of the feudal-bourgeois regime.

There was a gap in tempo and in the degree of mobilization between the textile workers of La Paz and the large majority of the proletariat and peasantry. That is why the movement at La Paz remained isolated and went down to defeat. The resumption of the struggle was initiated by the teachers who capitulated because of lack of strength to continue the fight.

The defeat of the strike of May 1950 brought on the bourgeois reaction against the proletariat. However, one year later, a part of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie reacted against governmental repression and brought victory to the MNR in the presidential elections. This ex ploit of the masses later turned into a defeat because the leadership of the MNR as a “democratic and legalistic” party had refused to seize the power which was then wrested from it by a military pronunciamento. This capitulation of the MNR without a struggle began to sow doubts in the minds of the masses as to the ability of the MNR to take the power.

All these events unfolded in a period of general ebb which had begun with the conflict at San Jose-Oplaca. While the workers were in retreat, the MNR began to revive and to propagate ideas and prejudices which had been outmoded in the stage between the 3rd Miners’ Congress and the Pulacayo conference. Each time the masses went into action, they went beyond the limits set by the MNR and followed the orientation elaborated by the POR. But the fact that they did not take into account the perspective of an entire historic period caused an identification of the preliminary aspects of the struggle with an actual revolutionary upsurge. Consequently the striving for aims which did not correspond to the situation permitted reaction to gain the upper hand and to abort revolutionary possibilities which otherwise would have matured into a full-fledged upsurge of the masses.

The textile workers convention, which formed a unified organization, the convention of the journalists, the revival of struggle on the part of the teachers, etc., were so many demonstrative signs that a reorganization of forces was taking place. But to avoid being thrown back the workers’ movement must avoid being drawn into premature battles and so remove all opportunity from the “rosca” (the “chain of reaction”—Ed.) to nip the approaching mobilization in the bud.

Bolivia’s Workers -- Their Social Weight

The Bolivian proletariat is a small minority of the population of the country, representing less than 10% of the total. Its great political mission, the role it will have to play as leader of the revolution, flows not from its numbers but from the position it occupies in the economy of the country, from the backwardness of this economy and from the fact that the feudal-bourgeoisie has faltered as a class. One can say that the political weight of the Bolivian proletariat is in inverse ratio to its numbers and in direct ratio to the political impotence of the bourgeoisie and to the insignificance of national capital. It is foreign finance capital which takes the first place in the country and exercises an indisputable control over national life. But at the same time, imperialism has brought a proletariat into existence which will have the gigantic task of putting an end to the oppression suffered by the country, of destroying large landed property and of leading Bolivian society to socialism.

The Bolivian masses, including the proletariat, are at a low cultural level, some 80% of the population being illiterate. But contrary to other classes, the Bolivian proletariat, because of its conditions of life and labor, easily grasps the revolutionary conclusions of Marxism which it attempts to realize in the struggle. This was to be noted in the case of the Pulacayo Theses: The Bolivian workers certainly did not read the Theses but they listened at trade union conferences, at meetings, during strikes to agitators using the slogans adopted at Pulacayo, and when events posed questions which the official leadership was incapable of resolving in time then it was the illiterates themselves who placed these questions in the center of their struggles.

The electoral law greatly restricts the rights of the Bolivian proletariat as suffrage is denied illiterates and those who have not had military service. The proletariat is still further handicapped in the electoral field by a law which ignores density of population as a basis for representation. With all these restrictions, the proletariat is quick to respond to the electoral appeals of revolutionary parties particularly where a call to direct action is involved.

In 1947, the POR joined the Miners’ Federation to constitute a class bloc, the Miners’ Parliamentary Bloc, on the basis of the program adopted at Pulacayo which carried on its campaign for the purpose of utilizing the bourgeois parliament as a revolutionary tribune, which was specially necessary since the period of ebb tide had begun in the workers’ movement. The most important success of this Miners’ Parliamentary Bloc in the period preceding the Catavi massacres of 1949 was in preventing the trade union leaders from surrendering the workers’ movement to the government and imperialism.

Thanks to the POR’s propaganda, the workers abandoned the illusion of realizing their hopes through parliamentary and governmental channels. Substantial sections were educated in the idea, that the emancipation of the workers is possible only on condition that they constitute their own organs of struggle. This “anti-parliamentarism” of the masses, joined to their experience and to their conviction that only the armament of the workers will avert new massacres, will assure the final victory, and will serve to greatly facilitate the future work of the POR.

February 1952.


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