Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History: Volume 4, No. 3, Bolivian Revolution, 1953: Jean Lieven Bolivia

Jean Lieven


From the Birth of the Revolutionary Workers Party to the Popular Assembly

This short review has been translated from the French revolutionary Socialist weekly Lutte Ouvrière, no. 222, 28 November–4 December 1972, p. 18. It is a comment on the only substantial collection of Guillermo Lora’s writings to be reproduced in Western Europe, Bolivie: de la Naissance du Parti Ouvrier Révolutionnaireà l’Assem-blée Populaire, published by EDI in Paris in 1972 with an introduction by F, and C. Chesnais. Apart from a useful section on the upsurge of 1952 in the introduction (pp. lxxv–lxxx) it contains a number of valuable historical materials, including the life of the POR founder José Aguirre Gainsborg (pp. 235–84) and the theses of the Tenth Congress of the POR of June 1953 (pp. 27–47). The book is now something of a rarity, since following the split between the POR-Lora and the French PCI in 1979, large stocks of his literature were destroyed in their Paris offices, for which the author received no recompense (cf. G. Lora, Letter in Socialist Press, 28 May 1981).

Our interest in this review is chiefly concerned with its comments upon the crisis year of 1952, but as it also touches upon the radicalisation of 1971 readers will want to follow up some of the ideas thrown up by the more recent conflict, particularly as some of the themes of two decades earlier come up again. Material that allows some sort of evaluation to be made at this distance in time is to be found in the Manifesto of the Bolivian Anti-Fascist Front, Lutte Ouvrière, no. 177, 18–24 January 1972; The OCI and the POR-Lora Debate Strategy for Bolivia, translated from Informations Ouvrières, 17, 24 and 31 May, InterContinental Press, Vol. 10, no. 30, 31 July 1972, pp. 907–12; Robert Davis, Bolivia and the POR, Vanguard Newsletter (USA), Vol. 3, no. 9, October 1971, pp. 124–7; Bolivia and Internationalism, Workers Vanguard, Vol. 4, no. 1, January–February 1972, pp. 7–12; and Stuart King, Bolivia 1970–71: A Revolution Disarmed, Workers Power, March 1983.

Many of the differences that separate Lora from his critics result from his interpretation and application to the conditions of Bolivia of the concept of the Anti-Imperialist United Front of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922. He expounds his views of this in the Internal Bulletin of the Workers Socialist League, no. 6, July 1983, translated from the POR’s Documentos, May 1974, and in a number of manuscript translations into English that have never been published, but can be consulted in the Socialist Platform Archive: Programme of the FRA, and Discussion on the Popular Assembly and the FRA, from Documentos, no 3, May 1974; Notes on the Anti-Imperialist United Front, Theses for the Third (aborted) Latin America Conference of the OCRFI; and Guillermo Lora, The Latin American Revolution and Today’s Tasks, the text of a lecture delivered in Madrid in January 1979, and An Interview with Guillermo Lora on Bolivia Today, from Respuera Obrera, 17 March 1985. We are greatly indebted to Mike Jones for his work upon all these materials.

During this period Lora was in association with the International Committee of Pierre Lambert and Gerry Healy. Whilst in prison he had opposed the unification of his group with the POR-Gonz├ález, and further objected to the guerrilla warfare orientation of the United Secretariat, and upon his release allied himself with the French OCI (cf. L’Expérience du Parti Ouvrier Révolutionnaire de Bolivie and La Plateform du POR in La Verité, July–September 1966, pp. 57–82), but the alliance had never been satisfactory, the International Committee alternatively supporting him and calling for his release (International Correspondence, Vol. 1, no. 8, 14 June 1967, p. 100, and no. 15, 1 November 1967, p. 199, from the Newsletter of 21 October 1967), and condemning the POR for its ‘opportunist policy’ of critical support for and even participating in the MNR government between 1952 and 1955 (International Correspondence, Vol. 1, no. 9, 28 June 1967, p. 122).

Since relationships were worsening between the British and French groups, it was natural that they should take opposite sides over the policy followed by the POR in the Popular Assembly in 1971, and that the other sections of the International Committee should align themselves accordingly. The controversy can be followed in The Bolivian Revolution and the Deviations of the POR, in Documents of the Workers Vanguard (Greece), 1979, pp. 30–66, and is also to be found in Fourth International (ICFI), Vol. 7, no. 4, Summer 1972, pp. 153–62. Other contributions in the same magazine include Tim Wohlforth, Bolivia: Bitter Lessons of Defeat, G. Lora What Happened in Bolivia, and The Joint Statement of the OCI, POR and the Organising Committee of the Communists of Eastern Europe on the POR, Fourth International, Vol. 7, no. 2, Winter 1971–72, pp. 67–76; S. Michael, Workers Vanguard and the Bolivian Revolution, Fourth International, Vol. 8, no. 1, Winter 1972–73, pp. 7–14; and the ICFI, Bolivia: Year Two of the Banzer Dictatorship, Fourth International, Vol. 8, no. 2, Spring 1973, pp. 104–5, which were all collected together along with The Statement by the OCI Central Committee of 19 September 1971, and the Statement by the Liga Comunista of Peru on the POMR and the International of June 1972, and reprinted in Trotskyism versus Revisionism, Vol. 6, London 1975, pp. 2–22, 128–50 and 182–7.

The seizure of power by the Banzer dictatorship and the retreat of the working class and peasant masses placed new strains on the POR-Lora, and in 1975 it split again when its chief spokesman in the Popular Assembly of 1971, Filemon Escobar, left to set up a new group, Vanguardia Obrera (cf. Nemesio Terazas, The Whole Country Rejected It in Dave Kellaway’s How the Bolivian Coup Ran Out of Steam, Socialist Challenge, 29 November 1979), only to end up being denounced as the main spokesman for the cocaine cartel in Parliament (Les Mirages de la feuille sacrée, Le Monde, 9 June 1988). As late as 1980 there was still purportedly a Posadist MP in the Bolivian Parliament (Speech by G. Flores, Bulletin of the International Secretariat of the Posadist Fourth International, no. 7, March 1980).

A good general outiine of the POR since is to be found in Defend the Bolivian Masses Against lmperialism (Socialist Press pamphlet, 1980). Its continued activity in the trade unions is illustrated by Earl Owens, Bolivian Workers and Peasants Renew Struggle, Class Struggle (USA), February–March 1974, which includes the manife-to adopted by the miners at a mass meeting in Siglo XX on 21 December 1973, and its electoral propaganda can be gauged in Ascensio Cruz, Election Statement for Vice-Presidential Candidate, from Masas, no. 963, 20 June 1985, translated by Mike Jones and available for inspection in the Socialist Platform Archive.

After Lora’s unsuccessful campaign as presidential candidate, he was jailed by the Estenssoro regime on 29 January 1986, and the appeal of the POR for his release appears in Socialist Viewpoint, no. 11, March 1986; Revolutionary Intemationalist, no. 4, February–March 1986; and is reported by Mike Pearse in Defend the Bolivian POR! in Fourth International-Socialist Newsletter, no. 41, April–May 1986, p. 16. The exhaustion of the party’s funds obliged Lora to advocate abstention in the election that followed some years later (Diego Mocar, Workers Power, no. 119, June 1989). More general information on the activity of the POR since 1971 can be gathered from Trotskyists Warned of Bolivian Army Coup, Socialist Press, 17 September 1980; Bolivia: The Background to the July Coup, Socialist Press, 19 November 1980 (an interview with an exiled POR militant in Madrid); and Bolivian Workers Resist “Cocaine Junta”, Socialist Press, 14 January 1981.

Sharp criticism of Lora’s politics appears in Bolivian Labor Shakes Popular Front, Workers Vanguard, 20 May 1983; Bolivia on the Brink, Workers Vanguard, 20 September 1985; Bolivian Workers Strike Against US Troops, IMF Starvation, Workers Vanguard, 26 September 1986; and by the Italian GOR in Bolivia: The Prolonged General Strike Of March 1985, International Trotskyist Correspondence, no. 6, March 1988, p. 7.


The Socialist Revolution, What Is It?

EDI editions has recently published some articles by Guillermo Lora under the title of Bolivie: de la Naissance du Parti Ouvrier Révolutionnaire (POR) d l’Assemblée Populaire. These articles aim to trace the activity of the POR (an organisation that claims to be Trotskyist) from its birth to the coup d’état of Banzer in August 1971. In the introduction we are told:

‘Today, when many are starting to draw up a balance sheet of the past urban and rural guerrillas in Latin America, the publication of this work, which develops the classical methods of the revolutionary strug-gle of the proletariat, takes on the highest importance.’

And in their 100 page preface (out of a book totalling 400 pages) the OCI militants Fran├žois and Catherine Chesnais describe the POR as a truly revolutionary party, which despite momentary waverings, has always based itself upon the proletariat and within the traditions of Bolshevism.

But few revolutionaries will share these opinions after reading this work. For, after examining the different quotations from Lora as well as the introduction itself, little by little a profoundly opportunist political line emerges. If the eulogistic adjectives bestowed upon the POR are disregarded, the Bolivian Trotskyists are characterised by a complete adaptation to the bureaucracy of the Bolivian Workers Federation (COB), the major trade union centre in the country.

It should be remembered that after the working class upsurge of 1952–53 in Bolivia, the COB played an important part in keeping the bourgeoisie in power. Led by Juan Lechín, who was also a member of the National Revolutionary Movement (a bourgeois nationalist organisation then in the government), the COB systematically diverted the energy of the proletariat behind the leading apparatus which consisted of Paz Estenssoro and of Lechín himself.

But we learn from F. and C. Chesnais that, far from denouncing the part played by the trade union centre in this situation, the POR introduced the slogan: ‘All power to the COB.’

The militants of the POR justified lining up with the trade union bureaucracy thus:

‘The trade union organisations and the Bolivian Workers Federation are regarded by the workers as their sole leadership. Its very existence made the COB an organ of workers’ power – whether its leaders knew it or not – and posed all the elements of a situation of dual power.’

And, moreover:

‘The slogan “All power to the COB” was the only one that would allow the Lechínist leadership to be exposed whilst keeping a united front against the bourgeoisie at the same time. Only in this way could the COB assume the full character of a soviet linked to the living mobilisation of the working class following the broadest working class demo-cracy.’

In fact, it all happened thus because, first of all, the POR militants lined up with the COB, and secondly, to justify their policy, discovered that the COB was ‘an organ of workers’ power, which had it come to power would have taken on the full character of a soviet’.

A Policy both Opportunist ...

Far from exposing the Lechínist leadership, this policy of ‘left ’support for the trade union bureaucracy reinforced it. The illusions that the workers had in the COB and the ‘revolutionary ’role it was reputed to play in future were, in reality, only those entertained by the POR militants in this trade union federation.

Thus in the theses of its Tenth Congress held in June 1952, the POR envisaged the formation of a coalition government made up of itself zand the left faction of the MNR, which controlled the COB. And to provide a ‘Trotskyist’ coloration to this capitulation in the face of a nationalist and reformist current the POR’s theoreticians had the effrontery to write this, quoting almost word for word some phrases from the Transitional Programme:

‘A coalition government of the POR and the MNR would be one way of achieving the formula of the “workers’ and peasants’ government”, which in turn makes up the transitional stage towards the dictatorship of the proletariat.’

Far from opening up a revolutionary perspective for the workers, this orientation, then supported by all the tendencies of the Fourth International, then united together, tied the workers a little closer to the bourgeois nationalist demagogues who then dominated the trade union organisation. The results of such a policy were not long in coming, and from inside the POR itself we should note ‘a mass exodus of important militants who went over to the MNR, and most often occupied the highest positions in the apparatus of the COB and of the state’.

As for Lechín, he signed up with the POR ‘in secret’ (sic) to complete his ‘revolutionary ’image in the eyes of the workers and the trade union militants. And if, as Lora writes, such a step brought out Lechín’s demagogy into the open, it moreover condemns the complete-ly opportunist character of the POR, which, doubtless to benefit from his popularity, had accepted an individual into its ranks now, it seems considered by the Bolivian Trotskyists as the principle obstacle be-tween the masses and the revolution.

... and Compromising

Finally, the latter part of the book, which deals with the events of the year 1971 and the creation of the Popular Assembly, carries on the same line.

Here again Chesnais and Lora maintain that it was the COB – and it alone – that had decided to transform itself into the Popular Assembly. Yet again the ‘soviet character’ possessed by Bolivian trade union organisations is brought out to convince us of the reality of the dual power that then existed in the country.

But a number of indications rightly supplied by the text itself contradict this theory. Far from being elected by the working class as a whole, the delegates of the Popular Assembly were in fact nominated by the trade union organisations (or rather by the top trade unionists). The working class as a whole did not regard the delegates as its own, nor the Popular Assembly as its power. Lora moreover wrote:

‘We should record that the masses were not really set in motion, and they proved to be terribly negligent in the appointment of their delegates.’

What is surprising about that? A handful of bureaucrats had decreed that henceforth the trade union was a soviet, without the working masses having any say in the matter at all. Then these selfsame bureau-crats were surprised at the passivity of the workers towards the pseudo-organs of working class power.

In fact, the Popular Assembly was only a gross caricature of a real organ of working class power which springs from inside the working class, and which is created, led and controlled by it. And the ease with which Banzer finally put an end to its existence is hardly astonishing.

Far from developing the ‘classical methods of revolutionary struggle of the proletariat’, this book accords rather an exaggerated impor-tance to the innumerable compromises of which some activists, who still lay claim to Trotskyism, are guilty. Their opportunist and capitulationist policy, and their integration into the trade union bureaucracy cannot be the revolutionary alternative to petit-bourgeois guerrillaism.

In Latin America revolutionary working class militants can only win the confidence of their class and lead it to victory by struggling both against the defenders of the guerrilla and the accomplices of the working class bureaucracy at one and the same time.

Updated by ETOL: 12 February 2009